The developer of the successfully Kickstarter funded game Another Castle is a personal friend of mine, so we (me and another friend) had him on our podcast. We discuss Kickstarter, bearded sprites, his game ideas, the Xbox One, and more!
My memories of playing Morrowind are particularly vivid. I don't know that any other game is remembered the same way as Morrowind for me. I feel like I lived there, I went through something, I experienced something. For example, when I was still pretty new to the game, I ran out of money. Well, I guess I wasn't that new to the game, because I'd managed to get out of Balmora. Balmora was one of the first cities a fresh player will go to. The main quest points you there, but you also kind of end up going there by default. When I tried going outside the starting town, wildlife killed me. When I tried to go into a cave, some guys killed me on sight. When I tried to steal some stuff I could use, guards killed me. So I walked up the hill and paid to have some guy and his giant louse carry me to Balmora. Clearly there was nothing for me here.
When I arrived, I followed the only guidance I'd been given: go find some dude in Balmora. I found the guy's name on a door and walked into his house, expecting to be given purpose and direction. I was greeted by a shirtless man in rags in a mess of a house full of drugs and drug paraphernalia. He told me he was a secret agent for the government and I was, too. He told me I had to go get some box I had no idea about. But he told me a guy in the Fighter's Guild knew about it, so I went there. That guy told me where the box was: in some "Dwemer ruins". Right. I'll go do that. Clearly that's what I'm supposed to do. On my way out, I asked around the Guild for a job, because I'm pretty good at fighting in video games. They told me some lady is really stressed about some rats eating her pillows, so I could go do that. "Nope!" I said. "I'm a secret agent!" And I walked out.
But when I tried following the road to the ruins, wildlife killed me. Little crabs that lived in mud by peaceful rivers slaughtered me. Weird little bug creatures paralyzed me then scooped my flesh out of my body with their tiny jaws until I died. Just about anywhere I tried to go outside of the city had something that immediately chased me down and murdered me. "Fine," I said. "I'll go save that woman's pillows and get some money to kill the jerky wildlife around here. Clearly that's what I'm supposed to do."
I entered her house and sure enough, there were rats and pillows. I unsheathed my axe, expecting this to be a quick and easy job. Seconds later, I was standing on top of the table in the middle of the room, which I had mounted in panic as the rats mauled me. I jumped towards the door and clicked on it, never touching the floor and thus exposing myself to a vicious death.
This was the city that taught me that I wasn't playing other, easier, balanced games. This wasn't a shooter where I always had the tools to destroy anyone I saw. This was an RPG. And that meant the lowest form of life doing the least important things could still shred my dick. I wasn't a hero. I wasn't as good as a partially clothed, possibly delusional drug addict. I wasn't even as badass as a few rats. I couldn't even protect pillows.
Much later, after I had gotten some money and killed particularly small, helpless wildlife, I attempted to travel. I saw a few cities, paying for passage on Silt Striders (aforementioned huge land lice). I ran into a bit of bad luck, however, and I ended up spending my last coin traveling to a place called "Gnisis". I hadn't been there, so surely a new land would be my ticket to success and riches. I come to find out that I am stuck in a town that, as far as I can tell, primarily harvests "muck". And there's a mine where they harvest eggs of some asshole creatures that (surprise surprise) kill me on sight. And the eggs aren't really worth shit, either. Super.
In my poverty, I resorted to crime. Gnisis was filled with shitty little huts that held one person and their total assets, which always amounted to a bunch of ceramic houseware. I tried to just steal the clay pots and cups and whatever, but invariably they caught me, and when I tried to escape guards beat the piss out of me or sent me to jail. But I discovered that I had become strong enough as a character to kill one unarmed, muck-farming NPC. It was a struggle, and I may have had my lights punched out once or twice. But Morrowind had dumped on my chest for too long to feel any shame. I had discovered my vocation: I would go into a hut, violently murder its sole occupant, load every single thing I could find into a sack, then go into the next hut and repeat. Eventually, I sold enough ceramic goods to the local merchants to get out of Gnisis and continue my adventures.
I leveled up. I learned magic. I bought armor and weapons. I could kill things! And I started to complete quests. Much later, I returned to Gnisis. "The queen of these things what fart out the eggs we harvest is sick!" the citizens told me. "Go get a scroll from this guy and use it on the queen and we'll pay you!" Easy enough! I walked to the part of town he was in. I opened the door to his house. It was completely empty. Totally bare. I walked around the fire pit in the center of the hut and found a dead body. I had been here before. This man was an important part of the town, and I had murdered him for his clay crap. And, more importantly, I now had no idea how to get those scrolls.
There is a lot of talk about consequence in games, but I've never experienced as much consequence as that moment. I was thinking the other day that it's a shame that stuff like that hasn't happened in an Elder Scrolls game since then. But it occurred to me: it totally can happen in Oblivion and Skyrim. I'm just as capable of killing NPCs that are important to small quests. So what was the difference? Maybe it's that way because I've specifically never wantonly murdered NPCs in a video game again because I remember that hut in Gnisis. Or maybe I'm just better at playing Elder Scrolls games. Or maybe it's because I'm not 15 anymore.
But I think it's more than that. Morrowind put me in a crappy, overwhelming situation and left it up to me to get out of it. The world was what it was, and what I did to it affected it. In Skyrim, the world is affected by me, but by my level, not what I do. For the sake of gameplay balance and accessibility, it has a clear, linear path of progression that you walk to the endgame. I still could murder NPCs for their worthless household items, but Skyrim never makes me feel like I need to. It never has me looking around, searching for a way to surmount the odds. I love Oblivion and Skyrim, and I think they are great for different reasons than Morrowind. But the way the Elder Scrolls games have changed over the years have followed the trend of the game industry of being a controlled and managed player experience. That's great and I have hundreds of hours of fun with it. But I still miss Morrowind. I miss being in a world that I can poke and prod.
All of the combat in Morrowind became a joke when I discovered I could enchant boots with levitate and a helmet with health regeneration. Most enemies couldn't hit me in the air and if they did, I just got my health back anyway. That is not proper balanced gameplay in any modern sense. But that's part of why Morrowind is so great. You could discover something about the gameplay that had real impact. Everything is a discovery in that game, so everything is a story.
I got a piece of armor from a quest and the guy told me, "Don't wear that, or the guards will get pissed." I assumed he meant somebody would speak sternly to me, or it would be a crime I would go to jail for. I was used to that. I put on the armor and went about my business. I talked to a guard, and sure enough, he was pissed. He tried to kill me. I ran out of the city. Surely that would blow over. Nope. I spent the entire rest of the game fighting my way through the guards every time I wanted to go to that city. The world of Morrowind was what it was, and it wasn't really designed with your interaction in mind. You could press on it in a certain way, and it would react how it would naturally react. It didn't really care if you didn't have a good idea of what the reaction would be, or if it really fucked up your shit.
Even the crappy directions were an experience that led to a story. I hated the ashlands because I'd spend hours wandering around in an ash wasteland with ash blowing in my face trying to find a little door buried somewhere in these hills of ash, following directions that just said, "Go north a bunch and it's somewhere east next to the ash". I hated that place. I hated the people who lived there. They were stupid, ash-sucking dicks. I think that sort of thing would be stamped out in a modern game. But a negative experience is a real experience. There were places I liked and didn't like; there were people I liked and didn't like. Like the real world, the world of Morrowind was what it was and I had opinions about it. I affected it with my interactions with it, and it affected me in turn. The world of Morrowind is designed as a video game, of course, but the way I interacted with it was accidental, and that was the secret sauce.
As I said, Skyrim is still more fun than most video games ever are, and it stays that way for hundreds of hours. But somewhere between navigating a dungeon exactly the way it was designed to be navigated, killing enemies designed to fight me at the level I'm at, and getting treasure I was designed to get (randomly selected designed treasure is still designed), a part of me still longs for the days when I roamed free in Morrowind.
I just got the Christmas gift I bought for my girlfriend.
I met her on a dating website, and I had found her by randomly plugging video game names that I really liked into the keyword search, which in this case was Civilization. I don't judge women by their interests in video games, but women tend to judge me by mine, so I thought it was a decent way of finding someone appealing to whom I could also be appealing. I found some awkward way to talk to her, and she responded, which meant she wasn't immediately turned off by my waist-length hair. Hooray!
We met in person in a mall, because a surprising amount of people are apprehensive that internet people are plotting to knife them. I have never really had any concerns about it, and I can only guess as to the reason(s): I act sensibly on the internet, I am aware of the (low) statistical probability of being harmed, or maybe I am just gormless internet knifer fodder. Who can say? But the point is a mall has a lot of people, and that makes people feel safer. I don't know how much safer that actually makes anybody, but I am not an unhinged internet stabbing enthusiast, so it really doesn't matter anyway.
So I talked with her for a few hours, and things seemed very promising. She crapped on Christianity in our first conversation, and she wasn't immediately repelled by my rabid obsession with the American Civil War. I don't go around accosting people with Civil War trivia unprompted, I assure you. I at least wait until someone unwittingly wanders near the topic, like talking about Confederate flags, or slavery, and then you're fucked.
We spent more time together, and then she invited me to her birthday shindig, where she and a bunch of friends get together in a field and get drunk. I hate meeting people. It is an unpleasant thing to do. I recognize the importance of it, and see it as necessary, but that has nothing to do with how it makes me feel. This was a person I didn't even really know all that well yet, and now I could spend a whole night meeting a bunch of people who at least knew her, and maybe everyone else too. Oh, and I'd get to meet her parents, too, because it was their place. Oh, and I don't really drink. I was sure I was not going to have a stellar time, but I wanted to learn about her and be appealing to her, so I went. Maybe I'd be wrong; maybe I'd have a great time, even!
As I expected, I mostly got to sit and be scrutinized as to why I wasn't talking at all by people who, as all friends do, talked incessantly about topics and people specific to their group that are inscrutable to an outsider. And then I got to have a hangover. But what I'd learned is that not only I did indeed like her, I liked her friends, and I liked her family. And when I like someone, that tends to be a permanent, lasting thing.
And something grew up out of that. We became a couple, and I constantly learned about her, which in turn meant I learned how much more I liked her. I could list simple adjectives, but, I guess as is natural for any lovesick chap, I feel like they don't do justice. They're not specific enough; they don't convey the magic I see in her. But the point you can well gather is that she nestled into my heart, and I was fond of her being there. It was the best feeling in the world, because here was someone I respected, loved, and admired, and who was, like all of the very best people, so unique and complexly blended that I could never had imagined such a person, and she liked me, too. That last part was the very best part.
I felt inspired. Surely I was at the start of something great. I did not know where my future lay, but surely she would be there, because I wanted her there. We had conversations about what we wanted in life: she wanted a family. I have never wanted children, but I often think about parenting and what I would do as a parent. I was honest about this. But that, I felt, was a long way off, and there was no point in ruining a good thing over an unknown. And as the relationship grew, I was less certain of what I wanted and where I would go. Things that never were appealing were changing. Thinking about having a family with her doesn't scare me at all. I have contemplated it, and it seems pleasant to me. Suddenly, I didn't know where things would go, and I reveled in that. It did not matter, because it would be with her, and that was better than anything I could imagine.
A group of friends of mine had rented a house for a week at the Outer Banks last year, and they were doing so again this year. I thought this was a great opportunity. There is something about that place that touches me in an inexpressible way. I have not been there often, but the smell, the air, the feel, the look of the place burrows very deep in me. Now I could be there with a bunch of my stupid friends and someone who I felt strongly about.
It was the best time of my life. I loved being around her, and I wanted that to last forever. She couldn't stay the whole week, and as I stood next to her car saying goodbye, I knew a very special part of my life was at an end. I don't know how that sounds to anyone else; I've done my fair share of sneering at what I saw as overly-emotional dribble. Perhaps people expect something grander or rarer. But that is how I feel. Enjoying another person's company is the point of life, to me, and those days I felt that more than I ever had before.
After I said goodbye to her and watched her drive off, I walked inside and stood at the door, feeling an emptiness well up inside me. She was gone, and I would rather have gone home with her than spent more time with my friends. I had to blink a few times to clear my eyes, then I went upstairs and declared that I was going to drink my sissy alcohol (I think beer is yucky) to distract myself from my girlfriend leaving, because that sucked. I proceeded to drunkenly get into arguments about everything I could think of, and then drunkenly babbled about how great my girlfriend was.
Fairly soon thereafter, I proposed that we should play Minecraft. We'd already played Civilization together, and Minecraft seemed like something neat for us to experience and share together. I work overnight, which makes it very hard to see me, and I am very conscious of this. We saw each other regularly on weekends and Mondays, but this was a way we could be together during the rest of the week, too.
It was better than I expected. I dug out a little mine and had a very utilitarian base of operations. She improved it into a little video game home. I built a lighthouse and a wheat plantation. She bred a herd of cattle. I explored and mapped the wilderness. She crafted and cooked and decorated and made all sorts of stuff for me to log in and go "Whoa, cool!" at. I secretly built a railroad that would take her straight to an NPC village. We left sappy stuff for each other. A complex of months of shared experiences grew up around this little hole I dug. I am sure our little Minecraft place looks simple and unremarkable to the experienced Minecraft player. But to me the place is something special. To me it feels like a manifestation of a growing closeness; it is a record of emotions.
The end of November came. I started to agonize over the approach of Christmas. She clearly is someone who likes sentimental things, and I have a hard time with that stuff. Maybe my past experiences are to blame, but I always dread failure in that regard, and failure preceding the end of the relationship. But then an epiphany. I remembered reading an article about the dudes what make physical figures of World of Warcraft avatars making Minecraft shit into physical figures. I checked it out, and I could get a little physical version of our Minecraft home for about $50. I popped into the Creative Mode, put our initials and a heart in the grass, and ordered it pronto.
About six days later she said we needed to talk. My heart sank. It wasn't the full-on breakup talk, but it was almost worse. She didn't know if she even wanted to be with me. She wanted a family. I wasn't aspirational enough, my job wasn't good enough, she didn't get to see me enough, she didn't want to be making more money than me, I was stagnant, we were stagnant, and I didn't like change. And I didn't want kids, and that was a problem in itself anyway.
I will happily deal with many problems just to be with the person I love. But I need to feel something in return, and watching what I want so badly die a slow death, culminating in a conclusion that I'm not good enough isn't something I'm keen on experiencing. She clearly did not feel the same way about me as I did about her, and the idea of being with me in the future scared her. She was crippled with indecision, but I felt I saw things pretty clearly. It was time to end it.
So this Sunday we are supposed to say goodbye to each other. I just cannot be around her or maintain contact with her; it will hurt for much longer without much purpose. In a way, I intend for it to be the last I see of her. My memory is happy and hopeful, looking out at a beach sky, and that's how I want to keep it.
We are also supposed to exchange Christmas gifts, since we already bought them. Today the Minecraft thing I bought got here:
I cried a bit when I saw it. I don't know how I should feel about that. I don't really know if it's any good as a gift, or if she'll like it. I guess I shouldn't still care about that. I don't know. All I am left with is self-doubt and a vast feeling of emptiness. I ran our Minecraft server, so those files are still sitting on my computer. It kind of freaks me out, honestly. Unless I delete it, this digital record of time and the feelings associated with it will exist forever. No one will build on it anymore. Nothing is left to do with it but walk around and remember.
But, so the point of this is that it occurs to me: how crazy is our fuckin' life these days? I met a girl on the internet who I found because of video games, then I had a video game thing with her, and then a company I heard of on the internet took my money to make part of that into a real physical thing. That's fuckin' nuts.
When it isn't being wholly exploitative and tabloidian, it speaks with the egocentric voice of the adolescent writer. Its skills haven't reached maturity and it doesn't have much of importance to say, but it is so convinced of the reverse that it seizes upon whatever is easily at hand to broadly decry some part of the games industry as woefully inadequate, giving itself an excuse to be a grandiose call to action. In an unpleasantly ironic twist, the writer who bemoans the state of games journalism ends up sounding like a 15 year old writing about politics or government.
I don't blame anyone for trying to find a more ennobled voice for this avenue of journalism; as a writer myself, I empathize with their desire to truly say something. But I am a reader, not a recreational empathizer, and this self-important grandstanding is as grating as the click-mongers. I have floated around gaming news sites, but I cannot find anywhere that does not do at least one of the two. 1UP, Kotaku, Joystiq, The Penny Arcade Report, IGN, GameSpot, any site I can think of does one of these two things. Of the two, there is, of course, a clear choice.
Kotaku's lack of ethics and integrity coupled with their zealous quest for The Headlines People Will Click On made me uneasy, but they were a fast news aggregator, so I tried to ignore the former to just get the actual gaming news, which is all I ever really want. But then they spent a month constantly reporting on -- complete with large pictures of -- the shitbag Arizona shooter from last year. They exploited a tragic event for ad dollars, and at the price of contributing to a murderer's immortality. I haven't been back.
But just because I prefer one site over another doesn't mean I'm satisfied. Joystiq is about the best site I can find right now, but they still suffer from an underdeveloped and shallow voice. This story is the latest in a long line of this entire field's penchant for trying to spin legitimate facts into a piece purporting to shine a light on the immaturity and need for some aspect of growth (conveniently these writers always have advice for the industry as a whole). That piece is well-intentioned and is clearly written by someone looking to contribute positive things to gaming. The problem is that it is poorly considered and sells the medium as a whole short, both seemingly prompted by an overwhelming desire to hurry up and get to the part where the writer gets to chastise an industry for its failings and give advice. This is one piece, but I feel like it is incredibly typical. I almost wrote this same blog post about some other piece a week ago, and I said "fuck it".
The piece ends with:
Music, movies, book, and film based on history have helped paint this picture of the world we've lived through. They help celebrate what our planet has accomplished and the good that men and women throughout history have fought for.
Like the real men and women from war, Harriet Tubman is a true hero. But unlike many war heroes, our industry doesn't even attempt to relay her story.
I don't want to look at video games for the rest of my life in terms of a history in technology. I don't want to be pulled through a war zone every time I want to look at our world's past. It's time video games put itself on equal footing with other mediums.
It's time to tell new, old stories.
I am an avid fan of history. The audiobook for stupendous The Civil War: A Narrative is 150 hours long. I've listened to it three times. Maybe four. I lost count. History books, history podcasts, history everything smeared all over my face. I don't like historical fiction because it's too much fiction and not enough history. This is not to say that I know everything, but that I like knowing something, and I like learning new things, too. Part of what stoked that love for history and learning about it is the video game series Civilization.
I played Civilization II (rather poorly, I might add) in elementary and middle school. It taught me more than history and it was more than just a fun game. Through the unique opportunities of the medium, it did much more than either. It gave me a perspective of the history of civilization, which had before been just a morass of numbers and impenetrable vastness. It gave me a sense of Mankind, instead of a nation or people. Here were so many different peoples who, despite their differences and (seemingly inevitable) bitter enmity for each other, could achieve great and wondrous things. It introduced me to concepts and philosophies of government, methods and technologies of warfare, and human achievements, and their general timeline relative to one another. It gave me a simple but important sense of the eternal trials that all humans have constantly faced.
But none of this was done by dictating history to me. Sure, I was always free to peruse the Civilopedia, but that is bolted on ancillary information, not the game itself. That was good, but not the true potential of the medium. Gaming is, in fact, not suited to facts. Its freeform, immersive nature discourages the use of hard facts. Gaming does not focus on historical figures because depicting historical figures has a responsibility of accuracy, or else you are conveying falsehoods, which is worse than not conveying facts at all. Facts are best presented in a concrete, linear form, which is best suited for books and movies. Civilization, by incorporating historical elements into an interactive fiction, did what no other art had done, and hasn't done since: it gave me a historical texture to feel with my own hands.
Games that immerse you in a historical texture and let you feel history without really teaching you any history at all are, in my opinion, far more proportionally common than other mediums. Total War, Oregon Trail, Assassin's Creed, the loads of WW2 games, Rise of Nations, Age of Empires, many Paradox games, and on and on. All of these games, and every somewhat historical game, gives you a feeling, a sense of history. Why it's important, what it means, what it looks like. By being a fake thing that lets you fuck everything up, it gives you a little glimpse into what these historical elements that are incorporated into the gameplay really mean, not just what they are. These are stories not about specific historical figures, but our story. History itself, not just the facts.
Games are doing more than what that Joystiq writer was asking for: it didn't just paint a picture, it puts you in the picture. Depicting the literal picture itself is already done; the best way to learn about the linear progression of history is not, and never will be, games. It's silly to try to equal or replace the ability of books to convey a series of facts with gaming. That is not the maturation of gaming, but the adolescent aspirations of maturation based on previous example.
And this, at the heart, is the problem with games journalism. In a clamour to be a voice of progress, we not only ignore a unique and unprecedented ability of the gaming medium, we bemoan our nonconformity with other mediums. While the games industry has discovered an entirely new way of making people interested in learning about and experiencing history, games journalism is too busy trying to shit on the industry and decry its immaturity to notice. Our journalism has seized on this behavior not intentionally or maliciously, but simply because it lacks a voice. It doesn't know what to say, but it wants to say something.
What is probably the saddest and most depressing thing to me is that the writers with the most integrity and desire to really improve the voice of games journalism are the ones who cannot find any voice at all. Kotaku and IGN have very clear and distinct voices. They know what they are, what they will do, and what will come of it. They execute on their purpose with resounding success and are the face of a maturing games journalism. They more closely resemble the mainstream media, with their loaded headlines and inflammatory topics. The more ad dollars there are to be made, the more it will look like them.
Those of you who are trying to find the higher voice of a journalist with integrity and insight are our journalists. You represent us. We want you to succeed, to bring us very voice you're trying to find. But you are letting us down, and you're in danger of being left behind. Drop the incessant negative and condescending tone that you only ever adopted because of your fear of unimportance. Become the objective free-thinker who can speak to us about us in a way we never considered, not the excitable, well-intentioned child who wants to make a difference and writes before he thinks.