A Look At Science and Society In The Post-Apocalypse

So I've played about two or three hours of The Last of Us. I'd like to talk about what it gets right that not many other zombie/apocalypse/zombie apocalypse media gets right, and the things it gets wrong like all others.

1. Dogs and Cats Living Together, Mass Hysteria

The core tenet of virtually all post-apocalyptic stories is "What will you do when society crumbles?" The problem is is that society has never really crumbled, it is states and sovereigns that decline and disappear, societies continue as long as there are people within them. Fiction has this habit of assuming that the rule of law is based on a state's ability or desire to enforce it, and not the people's desire or ability to see it enforced. What most post-apocalyptic fiction is actually asking is what happens in a low-technology nation without a sovereign government that conforms to social mores. There are already plenty of examples of this, but even the bleakest of them continue to be societies. Communities in the Sudan continue to be communities, even if they are preyed upon by roving warlords. The desire in all apocalyptic fiction is to drive people into tribalism, the smaller and pettier the better.

This is one area the Last of Us succeeds, at least early on. While the government appears to gone extremely totalitarian and ruthless, it remains. As opposed to other games like the Walking Dead, where they immediately leap to the idea of every person for themselves, the Last of Us' society has currency, they have rules that are followed and rules that are bent and rules that are broken. There's ideological differences, there's human drama happening in which they are not involved, it reflects reality better than most. Apocalypse fiction wants to believe that human civilization is one bad day away from barbarism and tribalism, but the truth is less dramatic. As a species we've understood the concepts of reciprocity, of civilization for tens of thousands of years, we built civilizations and empires that stretched continents in a time when to carry a message meant to physically carry it, and when information could only be kept by being written on paper. Of course it would continue even after a major world event. Why? It's in the currency.

Currency is more than a shorthand for what you get to have; it's a representation of what positive community production you've accomplished. States issue currency in order to have people complete necessary tasks, to have them produce and use the gains of their production to purchase the production of others. It exists beyond bartering as to better evaluate the worth of any production, whether its goods or service. The Last of Us succeeds in showing a people not just surviving but presumably working. Which leads to my next point.

2. Scavenging The Post-Apocalypse Is Not A Full Time Job

Play a game of Sid Meier's Civilization and look at the early agricultural technologies you research; farming, animal husbandry, irrigation, forestry, mining, metalworking, pottery (which is to say, food storage). What is missing from almost every post-apocalyptic story? And what is always present? Scavenging. No one builds anything new, no one appears to have any idea how to use the natural resources of the earth, and everyone's main source of sustenance is searching incredibly dangerous areas for common items we can build from scratch. It's the idea that you would go to an active warzone to try and find food rather than growing some. Imagine Minecraft where you didn't chop down trees, mine earth, build tools, mine more, build houses, put up lights and roads, you just wandered around hoping you'll stumble onto a working diamond sword. Last of Us appears to have this mostly settled; food ration cards exist, and there's loose talk of stealing from resupply shipments, presumably from farming communities.

Remember that I said that Rome erected city borders in a time when wildlife was scared away with sharp sticks, zombies are nothing more than wildlife. To think that we will be unable to set up a mine, a farm, even safe, defensible cities against roving zombies is to think that a pack of wolves could shut down a mine or that Toronto could be overrun with bears. In the post-apocalypse you will not have to scavenge The Deadlands Of The Long, Long Ago trying to find gasoline, so that other scavenger groups can fuel the Road Warrior cars to carry more gasoline to .... No, instead you will be a part of an organization that refines gas from whatever sources are available (Alberta tar sands? Alaskan crude? Texas still has oil, right?) and ships it to areas that want it. Just like now. Barring that you might be a mechanic who works on coal burning trains, or a miner who digs the shit out of the earth, or a security guard who patrols the worksite to deal with any encroaching wildlife. Hell, maybe you're a stable master. But scavengers of zombie infested ruins are like the modern example of guys with metal detectors searching beaches for nickels and bottlecaps instead of working real jobs. Only this time the beaches have man eating lions on them.

3. Weapons Ban In Effect

The reality of bullets is you either none or you have more than any situation could ever possibly require. We do not store bullets the way it's depicted in video games, with five bullets in this ammo case and two in this guy's pocket and seven in this trash can and four in this desk so now you have 18 bullets. The reality of bullets is you find none in the trash, none in the desk, none on that guy's body, and then you open a door and there's 60 untouched, manufacturer sealed cases of 50 bullets each sitting on shelves. Now you have 3,000 bullets. Or you open the door and there's nothing. Now you have 0 bullets. There are A LOT of Goddamn bullets on this planet, they are not going to be a rarity. There may be some control, sure, but it's not going to leave people with rusty revolvers and four bullets to their name; people will either have a functional, cleaned and fully loaded firearm or they won't have a firearm at all. You hear 'ammo shortage' happening in war where covering and harassment fire is common, where 25,000 rounds are fired in containment and indirect fire strategies, not in what amounts to a series of direct, limited small arms confrontations. This is something I would actually like to see way less of in games. The idea of small constant rewards actually devalues them for me, I don't look at finding 48 transistors (Dead Space 3) or 1 repair part (The Last of Us) or 8 dollars in a toilet (Borderlands) and react at all. If I completed some section and opened a cabinet that had a fully functioning new gun, or improvement, or enough bullets to last until the end of time, I would react. Interestingly enough, in games where it seems society no longer builds anything, you often are told to craft your own weapons from collecting parts.

4. Mushroom Blues

Here is the science portion of this blog. Now, I'm not a biologist, but I am capable of reading Wikipedia and understanding the core tenets of biology. I will applaud Naughty Dog's awareness to some level for including the very interesting case of ophiocordyceps unilateralis and applying it to humans, but they miss out on a key part; the ants in question die. They die, and stop moving and do not become the undead. Movement of any organism requires energy, calories, joules. We ingest plant and animal matter, our vital organs convert it to energy, and then we burn it off through motion and operation of these organs. This is a core problem with all zombie fiction, as our favorite image is the zombie with the guts and intestines hanging out, non-functioning... But there's rarely if ever any description of how it keeps producing energy without use of these organs. It's clear how the mushroom spores work, much like the ant, they absorb the host's tissue to generate fruiting bodies and create more spores. They do not in fact corpse ride the creature forever, because eventually the creature has no more tissue. Furthermore, it doesn't explain intense aggression or hunger for uninfected hosts; the host only exists to be consumed and to park itself in such a manner it can fully develop fruiting bodies and then spread them over the area. Wandering around in uninhabited areas, sometimes deep underground, miles away from your food source is completely counterproductive to the reproduction of the species. That might have worked briefly but the thing is is that humanity is the ultimate adaptor, we're the only species that can comprehend our own selection and adapt immediately. Unless this spore plague figured out how to adapt to our adaptations, it would find itself non-viable within a couple generations. Look at our invention of the gas mask; no other species can consciously choose to not breathe the air of their environment and continue to live in it. Which leads me to...

5. Transmission Fluid

Here's what I can tell about this human version of ophiocordyceps unilateralis; it can find hosts through inhalation, as evidenced by the gas mask sequences, but not cutaneously, as they can pass bare skin through the clouds. This breaks down though as it doesn't play by its own rules. Immediately after passing through spore infested areas, the characters remove their gas masks and breathe freely, despite their clothes and skin now being covered in the deadly microbes they took such precaution to avoid. Second is they assert that subcutaneous infection happens; apparently these spores are bloodborne as well, as scratches and bites infect the host as well. Where this doesn't work is that the characters pass through the spore clouds with cuts and scrapes when this clearly would MORE effective at transacting the infection than the monsters biting or clawing you. It's here where the writers can't seem to decide whether they have a bacterial virus or a fungal infection, and it does turn what could have been an interesting twist on the old classic into simply more of Check For Bites While I Train A Shotgun On You. This also leads into the zombie's behaviour; an inhalation vector should suggest their behaviour would be commuted to developing the next generation of spores and spreading them over as wide an area as possible, a subcutaneous vector would be the classic zombie. Of course then there's the problem of how the zombies are growing mushrooms on their heads for seemingly no reproductive or evolutionary purpose, if nails and teeth are the primary transmission vector.

6. A Fungus Among Us

That little machine they plug to people's heads and it somehow detects presence of the infection is frustrating. I'm impressed with science's ability to do tests that don't require skin, hair or blood samples, and processors that can identify the specific type of fungal infection against the known varieties in a mere second. And apparently have no record of false positives or false negatives. But then I'm baffled by their inability to create even the simplest of treatment procedures. Of course then again I know of exactly zero incurable fungal infections. Maybe it's caused by a lack of good testing data, since positives are always immediately remedied with executions. You'd think they'd put these people in cells and test various antifungals and chemotherapy courses. Unless these mushrooms can't be killed by radiation. Nuclear mushrooms.

7. He Can Hear You Not Moving

When the clickers are introduced you almost feel the game mechanic popping up like Clippy; Move Slowly Or They'll Find You. The only problem is that they aren't using passive echolocation, they're using active echolocation. What this means is they actually do have line of sight to you, they actually can see you regardless of how much noise you make. The idea of 'sneaking up' on a creature actively echolocating requires not that you be as quiet as possible, but that you stop refracting sound for a couple seconds. Maybe they could map that to Select. I tried investigating further into this, but I'm pretty sure most animals with tuned echolocation can actually hear around corners and obstacles as well, due to secondary refractions, which means they can hear you behind cover and walls as well. Could have been a really terrifying enemy, something that knows where you are almost no matter what you do. Instead it's just a motion sensor.

As I said, I've only played about two hours, so hopefully some of this will be answered. I am pretty confused at the idea (Early, early spoilers) that a single person carries the antigens that can fight the infection. AFAIK that kind of development occurs in wider population sets, or simply does not occur naturally. It seems weird that single person has the genetic data for an immune response but none of her immediate or extended family does. If it's not a genetic thing, then what environmental factors are there? But I'll just assume they get into this later. Thanks for reading, have a great day!


Gameplay and Narrative #3 - Controlling Fantasy

Last week, I said some stuff about putting a human impact behind violence in games.  This week, I talk about control fantasies, which sounds like a spell an illusionist would cast on orcs.
We think about control a lot in games. At its most base elements, a game is a system designed to take input and respond with feedback leading to an outcome. Your ability to affect these events, the player's agency in the events around him, is one of the most defining traits to any video game's 'gameplay' merits. Control can be deliberate or clunky, loose or tight, but largely what the player seeks is responsiveness; input to feedback. For a decade this only extended to pure gameplay scenario. Long-form games added adventure elements or tabletop statistical progression. Lately, many games pride themselves on the player's agency in the narrative itself. Games with malleable narrative are willing at every turn to show the player how their input creates narrative feedback. But are there consequences?

The earliest form of control was base gameplay; bouncing a pixel with a paddle, firing pixels at invading denizens of space, dodging circles in a triangle. The push and pull of gameplay is expected. Players learned early the lengths of their control. The triangle moved X fast and turned at Y ratio, while the circles moved at Z speed. Narrative was as convoluted as the title of the video game (which the exception of Yar's Revenge, which might as well be the Bayonetta of its age). As games matured, they began exploring the player's input affecting narrative, even in the basest terms. Simple binary choices first appeared, with minor variance in outcome. Later, choices turned into trees (often the dialogue variety), variance grew larger and larger, and the player's agency in the game environment increased with it.

Imagine if you could convince the asteroids to blow themselves up?

Today, many games aren't improved by having narrative control, narrative control is demanded of them. Gamers chafe at any visible sign of railroading, even when the developers are pushing them towards playing the game. Dragon Age: Origins allows the player character to complain the entire way through about becoming a Grey Warden, getting into adventures, and ending the Fifth Blight; ostensibly the only reason why the player themselves purchased the game. Was there a point to it? Sadly, yes. Players themselves (not the player character) complained that they didn't have a choice of being a Grey Warden, that they didn't have the option of killing an NPC as soon as they met him. In a game that gives the player unreasonable narrative control, not being able to completely break the plot annoys some players.

Following this path of logic, lets look at the critically disappointing Dragon Age II, at least from the standpoint of narrative control. Players grew fondness and dislike for many of the characters within the narrative, depending on their viewpoint, as is the ideal. But the demand for control was already there... suddenly, it wasn't that they disliked the character's opinion or view, they disliked the character's existence itself and demanded the ability to change it to suit their feelings. Players demanded to be able to direct the characters and plot themselves, when it took turns outside of their control, the reaction was not the player character's, but the player themselves. “That happened, what do I do now?” turned into “I should have been told that would happen and been able to decide if I wanted it to happen.” Nothing became too unreasonable, players demand the ability to convince characters to act against their own morals, demand the ability to control every facet of events. The narrative itself is loaded with characters with unreasonable demands, and it's when they clash with the player, when they dare to disagree, that the player's dissatisfaction leaves the narrative and decries 'lack of control'. Interestingly enough, the inciting incident of the story assigned guilt to the player for their (as-of-yet-unknown) actions, and the events of the narrative revealed their true innocence. In this scenario, being innocent upsets the player more than guilt, as the demands of a power fantasy clashed with a narrative about personal powerlessness. 

 Pictured: A man out of control, who ends up having more control over the narrative than you.

Conversely, look at the opening line of dialogue of Mass Effect 2. “Shepard did everything right.” Regardless of the actual events and choices made in the original Mass Effect, a character is ready to champion the player character (and thus, the player) not from opinion, but the player's need to be rewarded. Few characters dare to disagree with the player character, even when acting completely against the character's views. The majority of the sequences deemed controversial among enthusiasts all happen to be sequences where major characters argue against Shepard. Zaeed Massani became an issue because he would not easily agree to allow the player to act completely against his beliefs (the fact they wrote in a concession, a way to make him agree at all feels like a stretch of credibility). While it's acceptable (ideal, even) for a player to have an emotional reaction towards a character, soon there was complaints about control, about the game lacking quality. A character daring to have his own opinion and his own feelings counter to the player actually bothered players enough that they believe it should not exist. What level of unreasonable control fantasy is that?

I've used BioWare games up to this point, lets look shortly at Bethesda. Oblivion and Fallout 3 are very impressive in their scope of control, almost to a showy extent (I'm looking at you, Megaton bomb). Even in these scenarios, where the game has feedback for unreasonable input (for example, you can kill Three Dog, and the game will respond accurately), the player demands more. Main plot necessary characters cannot be killed, only knocked unconscious, an act by a desperate DM if I've ever heard one, and the player's complaint that they're being denied control is still there. Many characters have dialogue options only available if you've invested in a skill, the complaint is that the player is being denied content.

"I'm too old and pissed to care how many goddam Paragon points you 'ave!"
Something I want to bring up is that this idea of complete narrative control and absolute protection from any possible failure is never even remotely acceptable in base gameplay. These unreasonable control demands are a narrative version of god mode with infinite rocket launcher. Why is it expected, why is it demanded? I've said in the past gamers feel as if failure is not an option, but it runs counter to the nature of interactive games. A game where a player is never challenged in gameplay is disliked, and yet a game that never challenges the player in narrative is considered ideal.  I have to disagree.  Players need to move past the idea that dissatisfaction with a character's actions is reflective of a lack of quality in characterization.  The player must meet characters who disagree with them, who act against them based on their choices.  The player has to accept that not everything is a win in the narrative, that there is a push and pull.  A one-sided give and take relationship just creates an unceasing demand to take.  Games take the player to hell and back with challenging encounters, but can't afford to challenge them in the narrative, or risk dissatisfaction that breaks immersion.

An ideal game is one where every dialogue tree and morality choice had another option; Commit Suicide, with an image of a power button on it.

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Gameplay and Narrative - Do the Ultraviolent

Last week, I looked at the nature of gameplay needs against cohesive narrative.  Today I focus on graphic depictions of savage violence and all the wonderful things you can do with them!
Human beings in video games have strange anatomy; their bodies are either impervious to outside influence, or ready to come apart like a shoddily crafted wooden marionette. Our virtual worlds are ones where bullets cause a pretty red mist and sudden sleepiness, or cause skulls to vigorously explode on impact. This has something to do with technical limitations; every damage permutation requires the same amount of art generation as an entirely new model. But when aiming for graphic violence, developers seem happy to rely on the visceral rush of violence, but not the horrific realities.

We live in an age where the modern military shooter is the most popular genre, various other first and third person shooters are centered around combat with small arms (guns, not tiny limbs). And yet I've yet to see a bullet wound that even hinted at the horrifying realities that they can wreak on a human body. I've played a couple games recently that involved severe head trauma resulting in artistically extreme examples of ultraviolence; in Dead Space, the player can actually decapitate enemies, sending streams of blood shooting out with such enthusiasm it's as if the necromorphs had a blood pressure of 400 over 210. Resident Evil 4, accurate shooting causes heads to perform a disappearing trick, sometimes trading places with creepy plaga tentacles. And finally, everyone's favorite cop Kurtis Stryker's main fatality involves a close range pistol blast that causes a skull to blow apart like a grenade.

Apparently BB guns are serious business in the post-apocalypse.

I'm focusing on head trauma as an example, because none of these aesthetic representations of ultraviolence generate the same queasy feeling I felt the first time I witnessed the Budd Dwer suicide (absolutely will not link it here). Skulls didn't explode, blood didn't fly out to every corner of the room. Instead small, terrible fatal wounds occurred, and blood leaked out, pooling over his suddenly inert body. Everything that makes a person appear alive, every small subconscious muscle interaction fled in an instant. That violence could not be more real or brutal. In comparison, games with the most extreme gore seem downright hilarious. The only recent game I've seen come close to it are the exit wounds in Red Dead Redemption. And it served that game's narrative (John Marston insists a life of violence is a horrifying life, and any man with a conscience would walk away from it).

Limbs rocketing off in all directions and human bodies gibbing at the slightest touch completely hamper the sensation of impact that they aim for with ultraviolence. Ragdoll is a terrible offender, human bodies that should weigh over 200 pounds (more with equipment) bounce off of environment obstacles like they were filled with helium. Find something that weighs 200 pounds in your home and drop it from a five or six foot height. That's what a game needs to convey with every body. More than that, the horrors of war are not images of chunky salsa; it's the screaming of dying men at the point beyond desperation. The 'clean kill' is much more rare than a video game would like you to feel.

Upside down, it looks like he's waving.

Why this is important is the word 'desensitization', and I'm not referring to the kind media talking heads claim of video games. I'm talking about the desensitization that nullifies the work that developers go to. If everything lacks impact, it becomes easy to ignore. Games that feature intense and graphic expressions of violence are far too willing to throw it at you as soon as possible, and as often as possible. Dead Space 2 has a man's head implode in center screen within three minutes of hitting new game. The first time you encounter a zombie in Dead Island, you'll probably strip the flesh off its torso with nothing more than a wooden paddle. It's ultraviolence's form of premature ejaculation. If every body has the consistency of plasticine, weariness sets in quickly. I feel like a man in a suit needs to come into the office and place his hand on the art director or programmer's shoulder... “Pace yourself. You have 10 more hours to fill.”

I run a tabletop game set in a modern environment... in action sequences, the less common a dramatic element is, the more impact it has. In a bar brawl between three players and a half-dozen gang members, early impacts were light... descriptions were of punches connecting and incapacitated opponents crawling away when they had enough. Later in the fight, the players were ready to have more gruesome impacts; blood oozed out of mouths with broken teeth, and incapacitated opponents lay in heaps, panting and cursing the pain of dislocated knuckles. As the violence increased, the visceral thrill didn't change, but the queasy realities of violence creeped in. Furthermore, this was done with plans (delayed for future installments) of broken jaws causing hideous bruising and misshapen facial appearances... of extreme stomping on a pinned opponent causing a head to collapse like a crushed tomato. But that leaves you with nowhere to go beyond repeating yourself again and again. Warhammer 40k: Space Marine is a 6-8 hour game where you accomplish the most savage actions programmed into it within twenty minutes of hitting new game. For a setting almost based entirely upon the foundation of brutality, it loses impact far too soon.

Tell you what doesn't lose impact; green Cockney people shouting "SHPOYCE MUHREENS!"

Here's where narrative appears. In video games, combat is just a signifying phrase for gameplay patterns against a contentious force. In reality, combat is the basest form of human nature and expression. Natural violence is the physical struggle for survival. Fatal violence creates nothing but loss, it ends things (sometimes people) that will never be again. Gameplay is fun... primordial struggle is horrifying. What's the connection? Gameplay, or combat, is the basest form of what makes a video game. Properly written narrative attempts to relate to us, to give us the recognizable storytelling devices that allow the storytelling to touch us. Gameplay that benefits narrative should touch these same human functions. The scare (or jumpscare, if you prefer) touches our primordial fear of predators and the unknown. But violence should touch a sense of loss; the player should understand the necessity of their actions, yet be horrified by the fatal impact, both physical and consequential.

Developers who increase the impact and horror of their violence increase the humanity of the work, almost unbelievably so. Make the player disgusted by the horrible ends wreaked by their hands. Do it too early or often, and desensitize them. Do it to such unrealistic extremes, you break verisimilitude. Make the impact solid, make it heavy, and make it human.


Failure Is Not An Option

Verisimilitude is defined as the property of resembling reality, in games easily conveyed as realistic feedback for player input. Despite it possessing the word realism, verisimilitude is what allows immersion in all interactive narrative experiences. It's why we couch gameplay mechanics with narrative devices, it's the game version of 'naturalist' acting methods. It allows you to look beyond your controller and absorb a fictional reality.

Now, in an interactive media format, the most important factor in building this is input resulting in feedback. Action resulting in consequence. At first it was enough that there was feedback at all, a player was borderline expected to try every form of action on every object and AI in the game, and what we were hoping for was a reaction. Physics engines are installed in games that do not use physics as a game mechanic... why? Because it increases the consequence of actions (stray bullets ripping through soda cans, defeated enemies splaying across uneven terrain), it increases the realism of that world. We expect the push and pull of gameplay systems, we even go along with them (as Patrick stated in his explanation of The Stanley Parable, we play by the game's rules rather than attempt to break it), because they are in place to establish the verisimilitude of the environment.

Now, what does this have to do with 'failure'? Because in order to create a game that can be won, it is necessary to create a game that can be lost. Everything can be looked at in pass-fail states. To start, let's talk about mechanical fail states. These are hard-coded into the game, the game itself will not allow you to travel forward, because your actions do not allow it to continue. These include the player character being defeated, a timed objective being incomplete, an objective needing protection being undefended... in order for the game to continue, it requires success. The reason is to establish the aforementioned verisimilitude. If Marcus Fenix spent the last minute of gameplay in several bloody chunks, it would break immersion to see him grunting at Anya in the next cutscene. If Isaac Clarke doesn't fix the ship's gravitic thrusters, the game ends a lot earlier than originally intended. Failure is not an option by the mechanics, you can restart checkpoints, load your last save, or start the game over again. But they can't move forward in such a state.


Another fail state is designated by the player themselves. It is caused by an overwhelming rationality, a reasoning that actually breaks the verisimilitude of the game, sometimes in tragic ways. The player seeks to complete the game, a long term goal. Every encounter and sequence is a part of this overall goal. However, in many games, the results of an imperfect encounter can negatively impact the possibility or difficulty of achieving the long term goal. This creates scenarios where a player may achieve short term success (completed Encounter 15), but did not accomplish it in an optimal fashion. What this is generally connected to is resource management. In most games, particularly older games, the relative scarcity of necessary resources to complete the game causes this increased dissatisfaction with suboptimal results. In fact, as the challenge increases, as resources become more scarce or more meaningful, the player's tolerance for error decreases. The mechanical in-fiction fail states are not at work, it is a player-created fail state that preempts them. The game does not end, it does not demand the player retry... the player demands a stricter interpretation of failure.

"Jill, you're an herb waster. And for that, you must die."

This is a key point to make in the changes in modern games. This long term focused, player-created lack of error tolerance, these ego-driven fail states force the game to be played in ways that shatter its verisimilitude. Reloading saves because of player defeat is unfortunate, but a necessary mechanical contrivance, and reinforces the reality of the world... in action games, bullets are harmful. In games where you play a lawyer, presenting the wrong evidence too many times loses the judge's patience. Reloading a save because of resource scarcity only reinforces the game's qualities as mechanics. This is what leads to some players developing hoarding tendencies, becoming concerned that they'll have to save the magnum bullets and first aid sprays to fight Tyrant, using only the starting pistol and the knife for the entire game, reloading every time they take damage. The narrative has ended, or at least is put on hold between 'safe' cutscenes. Mechanics designed to invest the player in the consequences of the world are forgone as players focus on their long term needs, driven not by the desire to experience the game, but the ego-driven need to complete it. Consider how most of us played a game like Deus Ex a decade ago; constantly quick-saving and quick-loading every time we made a minor slip up, activated a guard, or took 'too much damage' in a combat we survived. It broke verisimilitude wide open... being surprised by a patrolling guard led to a quickload, and the player prepared for a situation he could not expect.

Modern games have gone to great lengths to attempt to wean players off of this. Resource scarcity has changed to resource abundance. Developers are honor bound by the nature of the 60 dollar transaction to answer the question "what if I'm out of resource X later?" What if the player is not a high enough level, what if they have little health, what if they've spent all their intuition points on the last interrogation? This has been described as 'dumbing down' by critics, when really it is a shift of reward by the developers. To increase the verisimilitude, to increase the player's investment and immersion, the developer seeks to reduce the amount of immersion-breaking rationalization the player requires to defeat the game. Frequent checkpoints, resource abundance, the developer's ideal is to have the game enter a fail-state only through the mechanical, in-world fail states they've created; the player is advised to 'use more skill' rather than quick-save/quick-load their way out of any minor mistake. Even then, if the reasoning parts of our minds can piece together an 'ideal scenario', failure to achieve the ideal scenario in perpetuity can do the same. In the modern Deus Ex game, being unseen by guards delivers an XP bonus (and two levels of achievements). Those resources become mandatory to the ego-driven, it is not that total success delivers that XP bonus, but failure to achieve it punishes the player and reduces their long term ability.

"I never asked for a binary fail state."

Lastly, we come to the last, and I feel most interesting fail state. It also happens to be the one that appears to directly cause the most anger and can by itself generate unreasonable demands on the ego. It could have many names, the narrative conscience fail state, the golden ending fail state... it is actually on display a couple times in 2010, by our same Bradley Shoecrafter. The two examples are Mass Effect 2, and Fable 3. In both games, actions that have unforeseen consequences play out near the end game. In both cases, it results in the death of non-objective non-player characters. And both these results caused considerable anger and regret, along with a sense of violation (the sense of entitlement towards control and distinct anger towards unforeseen consequence that the typical video game power fantasy creates is something I want to talk about in another blog). Now, in neither case is the player prohibited from finishing the game. These are mechanical results that do not trigger a fail state, they are fully there to increase the player's verisimilitude. And yet they are treated much like the previous ego-driven fail states... whereas those were driven by the rational need to complete the narrative, this dissatisfaction is caused by the player's moral conscience. The player realizes that they mechanically could have prevented these scenarios, if they had known their actions would have consequences. What's more, the player is actually willing to suppress their own desires and enjoyment (case in point, Jeff grinding the gold to achieve the 'perfect ending') for it.

I've tiptoed around Freud's structural model, but here's where I want to reference it whole hog; The super-ego, the moral and self-critical center of the psyche, demands perfection, and punishes misbehavior with guilt. And in order to avoid these endings, Brad reloaded an old save and played through hours to get his 'perfect' ending. The reality of that game world is broken, the seams have been revealed, and the verisimilitude is done. And that, along with his sense that the game was at fault, is super interesting. Absolutely would not tolerate an ending without complete perfection, even if it was beyond his ability to expect. Compare this to the quickloading mentioned earlier.

"Hey, you wanted to do side quests."

Consider LA Noire. There was a degree of anger about the inability to fail a case, to not make an arrest; if the player had the option to fail his interrogations so badly that the case ended, would the player accept it and move on? We have multiple instances of players hitting the power button every time they made a single error in the interrogation sequences, I suspect no player would tolerate narrative failure. Consider Heavy Rain, where everything about the game's marketing suggested this; meaningful, narrative failure. Autosaves after every decision, whether the consequences were apparent at first or not. The first thing players figured out was how to subvert it. Many through claims that 'the game screwed me over'.

"Sorry, my mistake. Part of the job, you understand."

Is there a way to create this narrative failure, to limit the demand for the golden ending, without completely suppressing the ability to enjoy verisimilitude? Is it even possible for a player to accept guilt in an interactive setting? Especially for unforeseen circumstances?


The EA Fighting Game

 I've been playing Marvel vs Capcom.  Remember when EA got the Marvel license and made Rise of the Imperfects?  That was terrible.  But what if they did it now, in the post- Riccitello age?  Now that EA actually gives a shit about their IP.  I think they would make a 2v2 2-D fighter using the latest and greatest EA mascot characters.  Like these.

The Heroes

These are the unlocked characters when you first start the game.  They all have very short intros to whatever the story is.  The EAverse is all fucked up and these guys have to fix it.

Isaac Clarke
 Isaac is a well-rounded character, with a focus more on power and precision than speed and combos.  His QCF fires off plasma cutter, line gun, or contact beam depending on the strength, and HCB fires off a stasis burst.  His throw uses his kinesis to whip the enemy away.
 Hyper Combo - The Stomp.  Isaac launches into a mad, profanity-laced stomping frenzy.

 Wrex is a powerhouse, but not a grappler because of his stubby little arms.  QCF does various strengths of krogan charge, and QCB pulls out the assault rifle or shotgun for a quick burst.  He has a charge move, where he does Blanka's roll.  Yeah.
 Hyper Combo - Ceremonial Heabutt.  Wrex grabs the enemy, and gives him a headbutt.  The enemy's loss of pride does most of the damage.

 Faith is the fragile speedster, with air dashes and super jumps and all sorts of stuff.  She can do a sliding rush to duck under projectiles, or a quick leaping kick to get across the screen fast.  Her main special moves are of the counter variety, where she does various krav maga attacks.
  Hyper Combo - Wallrun Kick.  A helicopter carrying a sheet of metal to a construction site (for some reason) passes by, and Faith runs off the side of the sheet and kicks the enemy into the screen.

 Morrigan is the Storm of this game, using magical powers to play keepaway tactics.  Her melee damage is very weak, but she has access to Shock, Fireball and Cone of Cold depending on the strength of the QCF.  She also has more control based moves like Misdirection Hex, which reverses the enemy's controls for a short time, and Glyph of Repulsion, which has a gravity effect on a part of a stage for a short time.
 Hyper Combo - Transform Into A Giant Spider.  Pretty much what it says.
Dante Alighieri
 A powerful character with huge melee range using Death's scythe, Dante also has a ranged game by firing crosses at the enemy.  He is largely based on offense, flying at the enemy with the scythe whipping every way, so defeating him requires patience and good counterattacking.
 Hyper Combo - Beatrice Assist.  Beatrice, with her sweet set of tits, shows up on her cloud and rains holy projectiles down on the enemy, allowing Dante to pummel them manually.

Tali'Zorah vas Normandy

 Tali summons many drones and devices to attack the enemy, loading the screen with traps.  She has a weak ranged ability using a pistol or shotgun, but can throw grenades, haptic walls, and summon Chik'tikka her trusty drone to harass the enemy for her.
 Hyper Combo - Behind the Mask.  Remember when B. Orchid opened her top and it made the enemy die from a heart attack?  Yep.

Grayson Hunt

  Wolverine shows up and puts away the claws for a variety of crazy guns.  The four-barreled Boneduster shows up, as does the Flailgun and all the other favorites.  Of course, the leash shows up, and after he snags a guy, he yells "GET OVER HERE!"  Very ranged however, as he doesn't have a lot of combo potential, and his best melee attack is the Boot, which launches the enemy across screen (and slows them down for a second!)
 Hyper Combo - Rear Entry.  Wolverine boots the enemy, and while they're frozen in the air, he produces all his weapons and shoots them in the ass.


 No one is going to smell very clean when Haggard shows up.  He's a lot like Grayson's ranged focus, with a light machine gun and some very limited melee ability.  However, he does get a bit of Tali's control, as he can call in a UAV to strafe the area, throw grenades, and pull out the forty mike to clear an enemy away.  He can also summon opposite screen assists from Sarge and Sweetwater, which can be good for mixups.
 Hyper Combo - Monster Truck.  Haggard jumps off screen and then drives across in a screen-sized monster truck.  Priority is low, so the enemy would have to be juggled to make it hit.


 Little sword and board in the EA Fighter, Alistair has the most hit points and the best defense out of the roster.  He is largely melee focused, with Shield Bash, Overpower and Shield Pummel to punish the enemy.  When at range, he is vulnerable, so a quick quartercircle back will bring up Shield Wall, which makes him invulnerable to projectiles for one second, and creeps him forward slowly.  This leaves him open to physical, so mixing projectiles and rushdown is key.
 Hyper Combo - Lamppost in Winter.  I choose to not describe what this one entails.

Liara T'Soni

 Liara has powerful biotics, and can throw the enemy around the stage.  Her basic QCF is Throw, which is a hadoken with considerable knockback.  Warp is a close range attack that is better served by setting the enemy up in a Pull Field or a Singularity.  She can also throw Stasis like Isaac, but she cannot damage the enemy for the second or two he's in there.  It's most used to either get range or tag out.
 Hyper Combo - Maximum Asari.  Instead of whipping around the screen while the enemy juggles in the middle, Liara levitates in the middle of the screen and throws the enemy from wall to wall.

The Villains

What fighting game crossover would be complete without a collection of villains?  In the story, one is tricking the other one into releasing the third to infect all EA universes.  Or something.


 The Ubermorph has a variety of slashing abilities, and can summon other necromorphs to aid him.  If the enemy gets too much range, he can call a Puker and Lurker assist to fight fire with fire, or summon a Slasher behind the enemy.  He does considerable damage up close, but is very slow, not capable of moving beyond a Darth Vader/Batman speed.  But up close, he's a monster, and his throw calls a Greater Tentacle to whip the enemy away, doing significant damage.
 Hyper Combo - Recombinating DNA.  The Ubermorph begins to heal back a large portion of the damage dealt to it, its arms and legs patching.

Saren Arterius

 Saren has a variety of attacks and abilities, some involve basic hand-to-hand abilities and small arms fire learned as a Spectre, others using electrical charges due to his Reaper implants.  He has surprising mobility, as his air dash uses his little floating platform to get around.  Also significant is how he basically taunts you the entire match, talking even while attacking or being juggled.
 Hyper Combo - Assuming Direct Control.  Saren's body is shorn away in favor of Harbinger.  This recharges his health bar, and gives him access to various biotic powers.

Lucifer, the Morning Star

 Lucifer, clad in his black shadowy form from Dante's Inferno, is the final boss and fights similar to Wesker from MvC3.  He is capable of teleporting around the screen to set up long combo strings, he can fly around at impressive speeds, and can launch various ranged hellfire attacks.  His priority is ridiculous, and it's likely there are a few infinite loops that the dev team 'forgot' to take out.
 Hyper Combo - That Thing He Did In The Last Boss Fight From Dante's Inferno.  Because Dante's Inferno is such a great game, I don't actually remember what he did exactly during that last boss fight.  I know it was pretty crazy and at one point he came out of that crabshell thing and went buckwild.  I remember him shooting like multicolored lasers or some shit.  But, yeah, 80% of that game is just gone to me.


Of course, what fighting game is complete without a good quality announcer?  I've looked through the EA archives and produced what I consider to be a pretty good team.  Doing play-by-play is DJ Atomica, ready to tell you all the big combos that are out there in Paradise City.  And of course doing color is John Madden.  During the end of match replay which shows the KO hit, he draws all over the screen with the telestrater, and shares some largely inane analysis.


The Ishimura Bridge

Top of Red and White Skyscraper
Paradise City Streets
Landsmeet Assembly
Unnamed Middle Eastern Country
Citadel Wards
The Planet From Bulletstorm(?)
Lambeau Field

So.  What characters or stages do you think should be added as DLC?  What kind of tweaks need to be in the next balance patch?

Atlus has the best translation team.

So I'm playing Persona 3 Portable.  I was thinking about making this blog around hour 12 or so, when Junpei referred to himself as one of "the tards", but I'm at about hour 25 now, and I just witnessed something awesome.  I don't know if the recordings on the console in the command room were in the PS2 releases of P3, but the third recording is awesome.
Basically, it's Fuuka in her room looking at her swimsuit and feeling like Yukari and the protagonist are better looking than her.  She actually says that Yukari works out, so she should try not to stand next to her, and then wonders aloud if she is actually the same age as the other juniors.  I thought this was maybe the most touching and real, true-to-life monologue I've ever heard in a JRPG, and I wonder how much of it is the Japanese writers and how much is the translators.
And then Fuuka gets the idea that she'll use an exercise belt she bought off Tanaka's show.  She puts it on and realizes that she's ticklish, and then can't get it off.  She starts rolling around giggling while this thing is on her.  And then Mitsuru knocks on the door to see if she's okay.  Fuuka calls out while giggling, while a vibrating machine is humming.  Mitsuru gets embarrassed and says never mind and runs away.
I don't think I've ever seen a game that is able to put realistic emotional gravity in the same scene as a fucking vibrator joke.  Awesome.


Female mooks in games

I was thinking about Nathan Drake, as I am wont to do.  It occurred to me that Nathan Drake has probably killed three or four hundred men in the span of two Uncharted games... but he has never killed a woman.  It made me think about how that might be received, if Nathan Drake remains as attractive to the ladies if he's throwing a female private military contractor off of a mountain rather than poor Yuri here.
I started going through all the major series I play, and trying to figure out which games feature female enemies as commonly as male enemies.
Mass Effect
does an okay job of it, as far as humans are concerned (all asari are always female, all other aliens are always male), but there is still a preference for no-name grunt to be a man rather than a woman.  However, they do have many women in ranking positions (Security Chief Roe, Jedore, the asari Eclipse captains).
Metal Gear has the FROGs, which... I have no idea what they are.  Are they female clones or what?  They all have the same RAAAGH! death scream, but they have those weird uniforms that the Beauties have.  Who knows what dwells in the heart of Kojima?
Fallout 3 does a pretty good job.  There is a fair degree of Raiders of the female persuasion (and their terrifying skinhead aggression works for me), and there's the occasional power armored body with a female voice going through the voice filter.  It still seems to lean heavily on War Is Men's Work.
Things that do not do a good job are Batman, as all the mooks are from a male prison (though you never hear of a female prison), Borderlands (is there a female enemy in that game?), infamous, Assassin's Creed (though that is accurate for the time period), Killzone (though I don't know Helghan culture or sexual mores), Splinter Cell, or Alan Wake.
I think it's a little insulting to assume that women can't make it into the lower ranks of a military faction, allowing themselves to be lazily headshotted by the player character.  Women can be more than just boss fights.  They can also be completely useless and killed indiscriminately.  I think it's time to stand up for their right to do so.


The improvements of Dragon Age Awakening

 Back in the days of SNES and even PS1 role playing games, I saw story as a reward for gameplay.  I would grind through horrible, soul-destroying dungeons and sequences, just to see more dialogue and story... at the time, there was so little of it to go around, it was a reward to have any.  Today, story is no reward.  If you are only playing a game to experience the story, there's no reason to put up with terrible gameplay.  In the cases where I'm presented with that miserable situation, I have one of two choices; quit the game and read the plot summary, or set the game on the lowest difficulty setting and blow through it to watch the cutscenes. 
I really enjoyed the story of Dragon Age Origins.  The characters, the situations, the immense world.  Everything people love about BioWare games, I found it in Dragon Age.  However, playing it was a Goddamn nightmare.  There were so many problems with it, I eventually just set it on easy and blew through it just so I could see the story.  I could have done the research and everything necessary to get through it... but the game was unrepentently unrewarding in a gameplay sense.
I purchased Dragon Age Awakenings with pretty low expectations.  I expected more mostly broken combat, more annoying quests, and less story quality.  Man, I was wrong.  Awakening has all the marks of a game that was designed after reviewing the errors of the previous game.  It has completely changed my mind, and really made me appreciate BioWare's commitment to correcting mistakes rather than introducing all new ones.  The jump between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 can be pretty closely mirrored in the jump between Origins and Awakening.
The first, and probably most important decision they made was to provide the player with the tools necessary to meet the challenges, almost immediately.  Within an hour, you have access to a Manual of Focus, perhaps the most important object in the series.  Because the spell and skill text leaves out the math involved in the skill (which is to say, the most important part when it comes to judging its efficacy), you can unintentionally gimp your characters with useless abilities very quickly.  I played through Dragon Age with an Alistair who couldn't tank a kitten.  Immediately, you're given a chance to correct mistakes, or try a new direction with every one of your characters, for a miniscule fee.  Fantastic.
The next thing I need to bring up is the availability and the quality of the new loot.  I heard many complain about the lack of any truly useful loot in Origins.  They're not wrong.  Even equipment that have quests associated with them are scarcely more powerful than vanilla chainmail.  Even then, most of the best equipment has restrictions on it that force you to avoid using it until practically the end of the game.  Without a place to store it in, you find yourself carrying around the juggernaut armor set for hours until you can power enough strength into a warrior to put it on.  Awakening fixes this in a big way.  Almost all special weapons and armor can be used immediately by your characters, and there are many unique appearances, sets, and enhancements applied to them.  Within an hour I found myself with a great katana, a powerful staff, and a couple pieces of Trickster's armor for my rogue.  And what I didn't have an immediate use for, I could store in my trunk back at the keep.  This is a textbook example of a developer identifying a flaw, and correcting it.
What this leads to is the combat feeling far different.  Trying to control combat in Origins felt like herding cats.  10 hours into Awakening, I can't fiigure out if they've lowered the difficulty of the combat, or they've merely given the player the tools to fight effectively.  I can remember being 10 hours into Origins, and being Total Party Killed by a pack of wolves.  Not werewolves, or a dark God, or anything like that.  A pack of plain old wolves.  In a random map travelling encounter.  Five times in a row.  With excruciating loads between each wipe.  I feel as if the damage quotients have been lowered, which gives the player the ability to react in time.  If I blinked in Origins, Alistair was beheaded by a lowly mob.  Now my mage can get pinned by a Childer, and I still have time to react and survive.  Is this the result of weaker enemies, or the fact that things like reviving in combat are necessary from the beginning of a game?
The sidequests in Awakening feel terrific.  Even though as a disgruntled gamer, I know I really don't need to complete any of them to win the day, I feel as if I am actually accomplishing something in the greater sense by finishing these quests.  In Origins, the sidequests felt like relentless time sinks, with no real story purpose (will helping the Blackstone Irregulars, or the Mages Collective really help me combat the Blight?) and absolutely unforgivable monetary rewards (a 50 silver reward for a half-hour's work?  Maybe I'll go to the movies, by myself).  In Awakening, they have much more reason for existing.  The conspiracy, rebuilding Vigil's Keep, helping out in Amaranthine; all these appear to have tangible results, and the rewards for completing them make them worth doing.  A couple Merchant's Guild quests gave me the sovereigns I needed to buy a shield I wanted.  Or I could take those rewards and use them to further defend Vigil's Keep.  I don't yet know what effect building those walls will have, but it feels necessary.  Nothing about collecting supplies and informing wives of dead husbands felt relevant to the Blight.
Lastly, the characters are likeable, plot relevant, and interesting.  There's enough variety among them for you to see different things based on who you bring, there's enough special armors to go around to make sure everyone has a great set of bonuses, and they've greatly improved the approval system.  You won't feel forced into slaughtering innocents because the bitch will pitch a tantrum if you don't, and you won't find yourself having annoying stop-and-chats because you accidentally clicked a party member when trying to loot a body or pull a switch.  The focus on more area-specific conversations is far better, as it helps you increase your approval of the characters you find most useful; the ideal of the approval system.  If you are always bringing Nathaniel with you, you're sure to find the statue he comments on, and get some approval from that.  If you prefer Sigrun, you'll have her in the party when you see a tree that she likes.
The improvements in Awakening have made me excited for the full sequel next year.  That is more than I could say before I played it.


Discovering Thedas in Mass Effect 3

I don't care what joykills have to say, finding that ogre in Donovan Hock's museum tickled me motherfuckin' pink.
Now the only thing I can think of is how awesome it would be to find a planet called Thedas floating around some star in a far off cluster in Mass Effect 3.  You couldn't mine it, or land on it of course, as the asari have a high orbit research operation in which they study the primitive cultures living across the planet's most populated continent.  All contact is strictly forbidden, of course.   Most interesting to the research team is the strange form of biotics some of the sentient species of the planet are capable of.  Many interesting fauna live on the planet, including a race of powerful militant creatures that appear to reproduce through infection of some sort, along with a race of bipeds that seem suspiciously like the humans from Earth.  There are plans to uplift the residents of the planet once they have reached the cultural and technological maturity to do so... doing so too early could repeat the disaster of uplifting the krogan.  Currently, the asari have no timetable for such an event.
Maybe in Dragon Age 2 you find a Mass Effect style future crate that fell out of someone's cargo and shipwrecked on the planet.  Alistair suggests that you just leave it alone.  Though it would probably provide good cover against archers.
It's these kind of thoughts that let me know I'm crazy.


The transition from dialogue boxes to voice acting in games

 I've been playing Final Fantasy XIII.  I made it to Chapter 9 just now, and without spoilers, there is a brief moment where you can walk around and speak to people like a traditional JRPG.  I'm playing without subtitles on, so you're frozen in place as they tell you something or other, and there is a icon at the bottom of the screen that says "X - Advance".  It was in this moment when I first truly realized the effects of moving from text boxes to full voice.  For a while, people have been trying to pinpoint why Final Fantasy hasn't "felt" right in a few installments.  The major transition wasn't visual, advancements in graphical technology were made, but even Final Fantasy XIII doesn't feel so far off from Final Fantasy VII in relating a story through images.  Music hasn't changed much, gone from MIDI to synthesized digital media to fully orchestrated symphonic works, but still relates emotion and mood the same way it always has.  What has changed is how dialogue is expressed.  In moving from text used to express a situation and a character, we have full voice acting.  It is a move from the evocative to the visceral.  
In early Final Fantasy games, there was a big text box, and all dialogue and incidental information was conveyed through that.  When the Playstation era came about, suddenly the screen was being used as a framing device for expressing information.  The result  is something similar to comics, the emotion and delivery of a character's dialogue now becomes something of craft, by changing the medium from natural voice to text, you begin a creative process of evoking the pitch, the inflections, the demeanor.  People created a voice inside their head in order to configure this experience properly, involving the audience indirectly.  Sure, all you've done is press X through dialogue, but you have a different voice for Squall and Selphie, you understand a pause for effect within a text box.
In comics there is something called closure, where you see one panel, then the second panel, and mentally connect the events of the first to flow seamlessly into the next.  It is what I feel the secret weapon of comics.  It instigates involvement, of unconscious interaction with a world.  It is an active media, one where the participant is directly interacting.  The story will not go on until you read the next panel.  Film, on the other hand, is very passive, and far more non-interactive, and attempts to create involvement through a visceral series of events.  If you look away from the film, however, it will continue.  You are not responsible for the unfolding events, nor even to pay attention or even mash a button.
 Is replacing all of our once text based entertainment with voice acted entertainment truly wise?  Is there a place for reading in games?