Basically That: A Philosophy Graduate Explains His Degree Through The Talos Principle

I once made a game about the death pentaly. This is my kind of thing.
I once made a game about the death pentaly. This is my kind of thing.

A couple years ago I dropped out of video games, both playing and designing, to focus on other interests and finishing a degree in philosophy. With university behind me and a games development course on the horizon, I am catching up on experiences I have missed in that time. Naturally one of the first games I lined up was The Talos Principle, and since it is so directly relevant to my background and design interests I felt it would be a good game to break my writing hiatus with, despite it being on most people's "yesterday's news" pile. As such, I'm going to assume that you are familiar with the essential elements of the game.

The Talos Principle touches on most major philosophical topics including epistemology, ethics and free will. However, I believe that the latter is the real focus of the game and it merely engages the other topics as a avenues for the player to explore their own conception of ideas. The conversations that the player has with Milton Library Assistant (A reference to John Milton, a 17th century philosophy who was neither dualist nor determinist with respect to consciousness) only skim the surface of the various topics at hand, but always he is goading us to really consider our responses and whether or not our viewpoint holds up. In fact, I found this rather irksome at a few points. I fed him some beliefs that were heavily considered over the course of a four year degree (within the confines the pre-written responses) and he still had the gall to say that history was littered with "broken theories stronger than yours". But this is the point: I suspect that no matter what you say, Milton will cast doubt upon your beliefs because ALL beliefs can be doubted. He exists to make us question ourselves, not to guide us towards some deeper truth. Because of this, Talos should be seen more of an introduction to modern philosophy than a treatise on any particular subject.

Because whoever wrote this knows more about Milton than I do. Also,
Because whoever wrote this knows more about Milton than I do. Also, "Spread Eagle". Heh. That concludes the crude humor for this post.

The textbook definition of knowledge is "justified true belief" and no 3 words have been studied so closely as they. While Talos cannot MAKE you think or believe anything, it seems to be guiding the player through each element of knowing in 3 stages. First, it feeds us the dream argument (How can you prove that anything you experience of the external world is not merely a dream?) and in so doing forces us to seriously consider what we think knowledge is and what we know. Second, it begins asking us abstract questions to which, at least in my view, there are no "real" answers and in so doing forces us to acknowledge that we believe things which we cannot absolutely defend.

The last step is to provide us with a huge range of viewpoints in the form of text logs. These logs portray people dealing with the same issues and with a huge range of responses, none of which are being called valid or invalid. This serves to push the player towards "ascension" by giving us the confidence to attempt answers to questions even if we know that we cannot be absolutely certain of our results. There was one text snippet that particularly stuck with me which suggested that doubt merely destroys, but the related act of questioning brings us ever closer to truth even if we will never achieve it. This is what modern philosophy, and indeed science, is about.

The tower ending is the culmination of the player's search for free thought. After we climb the tower Milton is loaded into our minds to be "that voice of doubt". He no longer mocks our beliefs because their specifics are not important to him. We have demonstrated the most important thing, which is that we will not believe things simply because they are comforting.

In reality, the endings are over-ambitious. If you tell a video game player not to climb a tower but give them all the tools to do so, 9 times out of 10 they will. That does not mean that they are not easily led. In fact, that sort of reverse psychology is practically a cliché. However, if we take them at face value the 3 endings are fairly interesting. If the player submits to EL0HIM's gift of immortality (reallya continuation of the cycle) they are demonstrating a lack of curiosity and/or defiance which the game equates to independent thought. Further, the developers are essentially saying to such a player that they do not qualify as human since their response is that of a machine not worthy of reality. Troubling thought to a human player.

The ascension ending, as discussed, seems to be the "good ending" to the game despite being not much more difficult than the "eternity" ending. The player has proved themselves independent and free. One other element of this ending which I find interesting is the characters of "The Sheppard" and "Samsara". We think of a Sheppard as a guide, but the one who helps us up the tower is a partner who does not dictate our actions. This suggests to me that the developers do not want to propose that people should dismiss the ideas and teachings of others, but instead to treat them as useful tools who can take us to intellectual places we could not get to on our own, yet who need us just as much. My knowledge of Buddhism is limited, but Samsara's symbolism seems clear: the internet suggests that rough translations include the cycle of life and pain of not achieving Nirvana. Whatever the correct definition, this cycle is trying its best to hold us back.

The Matrix was based closely on Plato's Cave, a philosophy 101-worthy story about a who breaks out and sees the sunlight. When he returns to tell the other prisoners they refuse to believe that there is anything in the universe but shadows in the world. He cannot force them to be free. It's not nearly as direct, but Talos Principle is playing with the same ideas. The DLC involves freeing the other robots and I suspect that this is where they are going with it.
The Matrix was based closely on Plato's Cave, a philosophy 101-worthy story about a who breaks out and sees the sunlight. When he returns to tell the other prisoners they refuse to believe that there is anything in the universe but shadows in the world. He cannot force them to be free. It's not nearly as direct, but Talos Principle is playing with the same ideas. The DLC involves freeing the other robots and I suspect that this is where they are going with it.

The "messenger" ending can only be achieved by finding all the hidden stars and solving a number of very challenging puzzles. The player can then submit to helping other players with puzzles (in a very abstract way that isn't important here). Despite being more challenging, I actually believe that this is the worst ending in the game. The player has demonstrated mechanical mastery over the world and exceptional creative thinking, yet they submit to the very simple moral principle of helping others. That may sound like a reasonable moral choice, but there are two problems. It suggests, though does absolutely prove, that the player has not seriously called their moral beliefs into question. Such self-sacrifice is not supported by most moral codes. Much worse, however, is that the player is knowingly submitting to perpetuation of the cycle. All they can help others do is to solve problems which have already been solved. They are condemning the world to standing still in time. They are condemning others to perpetually solving problems instead of answering perpetual questions.

If we consider all of those things, an unusually clear picture of the philosophical process comes to light. It does not matter what you believe so long as you are honestly willing to question those beliefs and seek new answers or even dismiss the question as nonsensical. It is ok, and in fact, assured, that you will be wrong. All that matters is that you have MLA bouncing around your head, providing that niggling question from the back of your mind. That is philosophy in its purest form and anything else you learn about it in school is just an exercise.

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I Made a Game for Ludum Dare and You Might Find It Interesting

It can be found here: http://www.ludumdare.com/compo/ludum-dare-26/?action=preview&uid=22819

Comments thusfar have included:

"Beautiful, beautiful game!"

"Great dialogue that keeps you wanting to play. Perfect!"

"Wow, I played it like if I was sitting on that chair oO"

"I wish I could skip through the intro."

"the pacing was slow to the point of frustrating."

"Who killed Chuck D? Excellent game..."

No Caption Provided

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Found Item Game Development

My takeaway from GDC this year was that I've been focusing too much on learning game development and not enough on designing compelling games. As such, I've decided to experiment with some "found item games". Basically that means I look at the objects on a table and try to make a game out of them. This is my second attempt (the first one requires a big stack of buisness cards). If somebody were to play it and tell me how it went, I would be grateful.

Thanks!

Nintendoeats

Spare Change Jousting-Checkers

Materials

1 bank card

1 table

An equal number of pennies and dimes

2 nickels or quarters

Setup

One player takes all of the pennies, the other takes all of the dimes. Each player places their coins, heads up, on the table in as near to a perfect straight line as possible. Each player then takes one of the nickels or quarters and places it heads up within one bank card’s length of any coin in their line. Flip a coin to determine who goes first.

Gameplay

During your turn, the opposing player MUST place the bank card such that it meets the following criteria:

1. It touches the edge of at least one of your coins.

2. It touches at least one of your coins such that the contact point is within visual range of the face printed on the coin.

Once the card is placed, you must move at least one of the coins contacting the bank card. You may place it anywhere along the outer edge of the bank card so long as it does not overlap with another one of your coins, its own previous position, or the previous position of another of your coins moved that turn. You may rotate the coin in any way that you like.

If your coin overlaps or contacts an opposing player’s coin, remove the opposing player’s coin.

Winning

The winner is the first player to either eliminate all of the opponent’s coins, or to eliminate the opposing player’s nickel/quarter. The loser has to take all of the change to a store and use at least half of it to buy something for the winner.

Multiplayer Variant

If playing with more than 2 players, remove all of a player’s coins from the table when their quarter/nickel is captured. The last player to be knocked out is considered the loser for the purposes of going to the store.

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This Is A Song

It would mean something to me if you cranked up the volume and listened to the songs that I've posted below. I'm not feeling great right now, and it would make for some kind of therapy-like thing. Maybe.

I'm not sure about perfection. If asked, most people would say that perfection is inherently good. Perfect is all the good right? I don't think that's really true though. Imagine a perfect circle for example. It's perfect in the sense that it is the archetype for a circle, but that doesn't necessarily make it better. In fact, it's a pretty limited thing. OK, I grant that you can have perfect circles of varying radii, but beyond that perfect circles are constrained and are only useful in a small handful of circumstances...and even then, an imperfect circle will almost always do the job just as well. Perfect circles also don't contribute any information: If you were to actually make a perfect physical circle it wouldn't tell us anything than the simple mathematics that defining it don't. My point is that perfection is constrained and rarely useful. I'm going to play a song for you now. I think that I'm going somewhere with this.

OK, so was that perfect? No, of course not, that's a ridiculous question. Music cannot be perfect. It's subjective right?

I don't think so.

Perfection is shockingly easy to define in music: chip-tunes played in normal time signatures without any dissonance are perfect. Assuming that the chips in question were made properly and the speakers are sufficiently faithful, music of this sort is technically perfect. Well OK, that is a very mathematical approach to the universe, but any reasonable definition of perfection should be in some way mathematical, or at least have a proof condition in a defined logical system.

I don't think that chiptunes are the only example though. There are songs in which every note has been carefully placed to be perfect. Sometimes this is done by musicians, a practice which I am given to understand ruined A Guns and Roses album. Other times it is done by a pitch corrector or other computer. While that can be done artistically, often it is just a process to make things more perfect.

So, going back to the song, it's not perfect. It certainly contains dissonance and the melody (if you could call it that) doesn't stay consistently on or anywhere near the beat. Subjectively, it isn't even to everyone's taste. BUT...I wouldn't change a single thing about it. I don't have any external emotional attachment to the song, it resonates with me in and of itself. As far as I am concerned, if you were to change anything about it the most you could hope for is not making it worse. The last thing that I want is for somebody to make it "more perfect". That would be terrible. Here is another song.

I lied. It's the same song. A rare (aside from being on the internet) version of the same song as it happens. It is also not perfect. The notes don't float in and out in a regular way, and the other bits layered on top are pretty sporadic and seem to be improvised. I don't think that this version is worse than the original. I think it's also as good as a song can be.

So both of these are as good as a song can be. They are both similar, but also clearly distinct. And yeah, it is possible for other songs to also be as good as a song can be. Completely different songs. Dear Prudence, there is one. Moonlight Sonata for another. And my point, through all of this is that none of those things are perfect. If they didn't have their flaws, they wouldn't be nearly so interesting.

And that makes me kind of sad.

Those skimming, you may wish to read the last paragraph at least

For a long time human societies had reference points. We would point at things and say "That is perfect. All things are judged by this. If you want to make your thing better, follow this more closely." Ironically, Plato is the archetypal example. Confused about something? Go see what Plato said about it (or possibly J.S. Mill). As I've just demonstrated, that is really a ridiculous thing to do...but it is also very freeing. When you have gold standards and "correct" ways of doing things, then you can also have certainty. We don't have that anymore. If you are working on something, how do you tell if it is as good as it can be? How do you tell if YOU are as good as you can be? You can't. Instead you must simply polish until you can no longer stand, then again until you can no longer kneel, and then desperately call for someone to judge your projects in the hopes that you only imagined those blemishes which seemingly escaped your reach.

TLDR: Without perfection we lack archetypes. Without archetypes we lack certainty. Without certainty we lack rest. Else we accept that we must fail and achieve nothing.

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We Made A Game...About Space Mining...And It's Free!

No Caption Provided

You may or may not have noticed that I've been rather absent since September. I have 3 pages of Quicklooks to watch. Months of Bombcasts. I haven't played half of the GOTY contenders. But there is a reason. A very good reason. I've been making a game.

I'm a philosophy student at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Because of my previous exploits, I was permitted to join the fourth year computer science course "Game Design & Development". The majority of the course grade comes from a group project, which we started in late September and will be submitting a few minutes after this is posted. There are many things that we would like to improve or expand upon. Development was incredibly stressful due to team management issues. However, we are hugely proud of what we have accomplished and feel that it is good enough to share with the world.

Our game: It has space in it.
Our game: It has space in it.

The game is called "Harvest the Sky", and it's about space mining. It's a little bit like Asteroids, but with a resource management bent and very calm atmosphere. If that sounds even remotely appealing, you should check it out.

(There were some bugs that were pointed out that I could fix quickly, so I did. Updated version below. 11/12/ 9:53)

http://hallmonitor.ca/wp-content/uploads/Harvest-The-Sky-Redistributable1.zip

The game is in the folder "Harvest the Sky".

In the linked ZIP file you will find the game, the prototype that we constructed before we began development, and a list of attributions for resources that we used. Yo, there are phat stacks of other people's music in here. I'm not Jimi Hendrix. I don't know Jimi Hendrix. I don't even know Jimi Hendrix's estranged third cousin.

Note that the game autosaves when you dock, and there is only one save slot.

(One area where we believe the game is deficient is that it doesn't communicate enough information to the player, so if you have any questions I'll be happy to answer. Also, try to remember that this is a 2-person student project!)

This Project brought to you by:

-Eve El-Semaani

-Adrian Hall

FAQ

I will continue to update this as questions seem worth addressing

What am I supposed to do?

-Harvest asteroids by either dragging them into one of the asteroid receptacles, or breaking them down into manageable chunks, collecting them with your asteroid catchers and bringing them back to your base.

Why can't I take leave the base?

-You can't leave unless you have health, fuel and at least one thruster.

Why won't Darkstar move?

-It's a very heavy ship, especially when loaded up with fuel! You will need more and better thrusters. Darkstar takes up to 8, so you'll want to stack a few. (Upon further testing, we have found that Darkstar needs more tweaking to meet it's gameplay function. At some point we may post an updated version of the game with some needed balance tweaks)

Why do ships lose their fuel and health when I switch them?

-Rental fee.

This seems kind of terrible!

-Hopefully that's just because you are playing the prototype. If it's not in 3D, go back into the zip file and run the executable in the folder "Harvest The Sky". If that's not the case, please tell me about your issues! Every piece of feedback is a learning experience.

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Postcards From Earthbound

Yesterday I finished playing Earthbound for the first time. I wanted to share a few of my most memorable moments in the game. I also included some text that you can read while you listen to them.

Jeff's Journey

It's not that running away from boarding school seems all that big of a deal. I mean, I know people who did. Sure, you don't usually have to fight bears and cavemen, and you don't usually ride a friendly sea monster, or meet a monkey that likes bubble gum. But those are incidental, and really exciting things.

But to come home to my father...to run away from school and make it all the way there...and have him not remember me. Where does Jeff find his pluck? Is his courage a reaction to his father's indifference?

The Dungeon Man

Why did you have to climb all the way up this tower?

-To get the Dungeon Man!

Does the Dungeon Man fight stuff?

-Nah, he's a Dungeon Man!

Does he move things?

-Nah, but he IS a Dungeon Man!

Why do you have to walk BACK up him again?

-DUNGEON MAN!

...Yeah, ok. Dungeon Man.

The Chicken

I was in the middle of a desert and I fought a snake. Just a regular old snake of a variety which I had smited 20 that day alone. But this one was special. This one was carrying a chick. That chick chirped happily in my inventory until, a few minutes later, it grew into a healthy chicken. This chicken (who I told all my friends about and who I name "My Earthbound Chicken") came with me everywhere, through snow and city, the highest peak and the lowest depths, and then into the heart of evil itself, contributing nothing but the joy of its presence and an endearing cluck every half a minute or so.

Mother

From the pseudo-reality of Eagleland, we had plunged into the depths of mania. Giygas' lair was stowed far away from any knowable place, and within Giygas lay a further foreign entity. Not so straightforward as a force of evil, Giygas was a dark and confused force, led to madness by the wicked little flea Pokey...or perhaps in the heart of evil and violence does lie simply madness. Regardless, we were stranded in this unknowable place assaulting the walls to no avail. In a last desperate attempt to save us Paula sat quietly and prayed as we protected her. She prayed to Jeff's father, to Mr. Saturn, to the Runaway Five, to the boys at the boarding school...and they gave us strength but it was not enough. In a desperate attempt she called out to Mother.

And I could see clearly my mother, not knowing the danger that we were in, the insanity around us, the fact that she could lose her son at any moment. She froze suddenly, and something breached her. She could not hear Paula's voice, but she knew. Knew that her son was in danger. That there was nothing that she could do but pray. And all I wanted was to let her know that I was safe, whether it was true or not.

The Museum

Somehow the memory that stays with me most of all is a quiet one. You can stand in the Fourside Museum and stare at the massive bones of a creature that will never live again. It is so vast that you cannot see most of it, and it fills the majority of the building. People mill about around you, but none will disturb you. As you lie there listening to the quiet noises that fill the hall, your mind wanders. And you begin to think not just of the dinosaurs, but of the space. This place will always be here. It is not under threat of Giygas, or Pokey, or terrorists, or businessmen, or drug dealers, or stupid kids with too much time on their hands, or global warming, or moronic voters, or the sun crashing into the earth, or even the crumbling effects of time's feet crashing against it. This museum will always be here. Even when I flick the switch and turn off the system, erasing the immediate instance of that museum, it is still there. It is embedded in the silicon, and in anyone who takes the time to visit it. This museum will always be here.

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An Introduction To Making Games (With GameMaker)

There was a time when making a game as simple as the Atari 2600 classic Combat required 6 months of constant work not simply by professionals, but by the people who developed the hardware that the game was running on. We could not have come further from that point today, and right now anybody with a computer, a little bit of time and enough dedication can make a fully playable game that far surpasses the complexity of anything made before 1983. Even better, they can often do it in less than a day. In this post, and a few after, I want to give you the tools to do so.

Before I get into it, I want to be clear that I HATE math and will do anything to avoid it. I am also not a computer science student: I’m in the fourth year of a Philosophy degree, which is as liberal arts as you can get. Until early last year, the only programming that I had any experience with was a very poor Java class in high school. Fortunately a designer from Telltale encouraged me to become familiar with Gamemaker, and on my own time, with a minimum of math, I was able to learn these skills and start experimenting with game ideas that had lived in my head for years. I just want to make it clear that anybody can do this, and many rumours about the skills needed are greatly exaggerated.

So where do I start?

Well, there are lots of ways that you could start. You could start by making mods for other games, or just make new levels and models for them. Those things are completely valid ways to start, but I’m going to assume that you, like me, want to focus on developing actual game mechanics. This means learning a game development toolset. There are many options out there, and depending on your prior experience with code you might want to go somewhere else. What I’m going to talk about here is the free 2D development software Gamemaker.

What is that?

GM is a shareware level editor, code editor, art editor, and 2D engine (it has 3D in the paid versions, but that’s not really its forte and we won’t talk about it here). It is powerful, flexible, and the recently released (and rather expensive) studio version supports development for many mobile platforms along with Windows and Mac. It has its own proprietary programming language called GML that is conceptually similar to, but not easily translated into, Java and C#.

Why are we using GM if its language is proprietary?

It certainly has many things to recommend it, but most important for our purpose is that it is a fantastic learning tool. This is because you can make a complete game for it without writing a single line of code. It features a drag and drop (D&D) system that allows you to give things in the world (objects) behaviours using an entirely graphical interface. This allows you to quickly build a reasonably complex game of your own design without having to worry about code structure or anything.

That’s all well and good, but there’s a second part to the learning process. At some point you’ll be working on your creation and realize that there is no simple way to do something using D&D. Since you love this idea to death and it would kill you not to have it, you will steel yourself and add an “attach code box” to one of your objects. It is likely that your first code will be full of bugs, and that you’ll have your eyes on the Gamemaker code reference site most of the time, but that’s ok. You’re learning. This is what learning feels like...

Well anyway, that’s what happened to me. Basically, this is a way to learn the theory behind programming without having to learn an actual language first, and to do it in an environment where the really complex work (such as collision detection) is already done. If you stay on with game making you will eventually want to learn something like C# so that you can use a more robust engine like Unity, but doing this first will give you the basics. And hey, Spelunky was originally developed for Gamemaker. In fact, the code for that game is freely available so if you want to see what is possible with these relatively straightforward tools, you can take a look at that.

That’s great, but I don’t even know where to start with this program. SO MANY BUTTONS!

Unlike most guides, I’m not going to tell you exactly where to click and what to type. I’m assuming that you are smart enough to figure out or Google that stuff. I find that I get frustrated by tutorials that explain in too much detail and start to miss things. This may not work for you, in which case there are many other very good guides out there and I certainly recommend that you check them out.

To begin with, you’re going to want to start a new project instead of using the example one that comes up when you do a fresh install of GM. Once you’ve done that, you’ll also need to create a new room. Every game must have a room (read: level) in it to run. In fact, if you press the green triangle on the toolbar you will be able to run this game! Of course it won’t do anything because it’s missing, you know, stuff.

The next thing that you’ll want (in 99% of cases) is an object for the player to control, so make a new object and call it “playerObject”. Almost everything that happens in the game will be done by and to objects. This is analogous to the way that we think about real physical space, and this type of programming is called “Object Oriented Programming,” or OOP.

Now that you’ve created an object, you’ll need to give it a sprite. You can use any image you like, and GM will adjust its in-built collision detection to transparencies so feel free to use a shaped image. Now go back to your room and (using the room editor’s objects tab) place an “instance” of playerObject into it. At this point we should note that “objects” and “instances of objects” are different from each other. I should hope that difference is intuitive, but if it isn’t you can think about the object as being the blueprint for a car, while an instance is the car itself. You can have many cars built from the same blueprint, and if you have an accident in one car it won’t have any effect on the others.

Now if you run the program (the green triangle again) an instance of your object will show up wherever you put it in the room. Of course it won’t do anything, because it needs some “behaviours” attached to “events.”

Close the game and go back to playerObject. See that “add event” button? Press it and create a keyboard event for whatever button you want to use to move the object up. Now add one of the “move fixed” boxes from the menu on the right (it’s the red one with all the arrows in it). It will ask you for a direction and some values. We’ve already decided that’s it’s moving up, and you can pick a speed. I’d recommend something small like 2 or 5, because if it’s too big your object will just run off the screen.

Now if you run your program, you can make your instance of playerObject go up. Woooo! Now, what exactly did we just do?

Time in GM is measured in frames. By default it runs games at 30 frames per second, so your object is checking the keyboard 30 times and performing its behaviour every time it find that you are pressing you’re up key. Learning what order code is being run at will be very important later, but for now this basic understanding of framerate is all that you need.

Ok, what now?

You’ve probably seen many exciting buttons and functions while doing this, so my suggestion is that you think of a type of game that you want to make (something relatively simple) and start experimenting with what kinds of events should trigger what kinds of behaviours. You’ll probably want object collision events, and you may want to mess with the room settings like size or resolution. Or not, the sky is the limit!

Wait, don’t leave me!

Relax; I’ll happily answer anybody’s questions in the comments or by PM. At some point soon I plan to write a guide exploring some more advanced features and concepts that I didn’t discover till later, and then after that I want to look at some ways to stay organized and write code (yes, code!) in ways that would have made my life much easier if somebody had shown them to me when I started out.

Go forth and make games!

(To inspire you, here is a prototype that I made from scratch for my “game design and development” class over the weekend. While there is certainly much that needs to be done with this particular project, it shows you how quickly you can build a game if you take a small amount of time to learn some tools!)

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A Whole Bunch of Posters about Old Game Consoles

Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9

Every year at my university there is an event called Frag 4 Cancer. It's pretty much what it sounds like. this year, I am supplying a ton of retro gaming stuff. In preparation, I've done up some posters about the histories of the consoles that I'm bringing (there will be other information out there, but this is the bulk of it). I thought that some of you might be interested to see these, and you might have some comments.

They still haven't been edited, but in terms of information this is basically it. It's not really possible to fit the whole history of the NES on one page, but I'm pretty sure that I got the main points and some flavour in each one. And I'm Canadian, so I spell some words with a u. Sorry.

PEACE.

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I Beg Of You, Do Not Play The Line

//Every fiber of me wants to post this without a spoiler warning, but I’m not actually capable of being that much of a dick. Spoilers ahead//

You may have heard that Spec Ops: The Line is an interesting game, and it is. You may be considering playing it. You may even have bought it. I am here to save you, and the whole of Dubai from that reckless action. You must not Play Spec Ops: The Line. I have already travelled down that dark path, and all I can do is send this message back to you in the hopes that I can redeem myself. But I know that I can’t. This is all I can do.

Your mission in The Line will not go as planned. You will burn 50 innocent people to death, you will destroy the remaining water supply, and you will kill the entire 33 platoon, who are only there to help. You will get your squadmates killed, you will doom the region, and you will be blamed for every drop of blood spilled as you work your way through Dubai. Not just by the developers, not just by the people within the game. By yourself.

“Surely there must be a way around those things” you might say. “They can’t design a game that gives me the ability to commit terrible acts without at least giving me some choice. I have paid 60 (or maybe 30) dollars, why would Yager want to punish me and all of those innocent people for supporting their company?”

But there isn’t. There is not choice that you can make within the game that will prevent you from killing thousands of people needlessly. Whether this was to make a point, or to grab headlines, or merely out of sadistic pleasure, I don’t know. What I do know is that The Line traps you and forces you to do terrible things. Perhaps you will choose to put the blood of Dubai on Yager’s hands. I leave that to you, and your god if you have one, to sort out.

Whether or not you blame the developer, you are still making the choice. I am warning you now, you have no excuse. At the very end of the game I was reminded that my original mission was recon and nothing more. That I was to exit the region once I found survivors.It's too late for me, but you can select that option from where you are sitting. Don’t put the disc in your console. Don’t download the game from Steam. The only way to save Dubai, is not to play.

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The Problem of Problems

The other day I was talking to a software programmer who mostly does outsourcing work for game developers. He told me that video games are the only place where there are interesting problems to be solved in computer science; everything else is either an engineering exercise (networking, multimedia software) or completely out of our reach (artificial intelligence). This explains why somebody like John Carmack, who doesn’t seem to really care about games and spends his spare time building space rockets, would give a crap about our stupid hobby: it’s one of the few games in town for really advanced problem solving that uses his skillsets.

We may not understand most of what he says, but John Carmack's genius is exciting and engaging.
We may not understand most of what he says, but John Carmack's genius is exciting and engaging.

This got me thinking about game design as well. It seems as though that is the one area of media that we are still learning about as well. Sure, as individuals people need to keep relearning filmmaking techniques or music theory, but we as a society understand these things completely. In fact, we can now science our way into making an extremely popular song or movie (let’s disregard personal taste here, because that isn’t always just impacted by the media itself). Even if you don’t care for the music written by a computer, it’s likely that you listen to a great deal of older music that is still just as powerful now as the day that it was released. Video games are different, because there are no hard and fast rules defining how to make one that people really like. You can’t really teach somebody game design, all we really have are some rules of thumb about what usually works and what doesn’t. There is also a measure of success that doesn’t exist in other mediums, because simply making a game that people can/want to finish is an additional challenge that we have to deal with.

These concerns aren't new: Wells predicted that complacency would literally devolve us, while Orwell suggested that a never-ending war (a false problem) could be used to control the masses. The power of problems in our society is well understood.
These concerns aren't new: Wells predicted that complacency would literally devolve us, while Orwell suggested that a never-ending war (a false problem) could be used to control the masses. The power of problems in our society is well understood.

I actually don’t want to just talk about video games though, I want to talk about us, our species. For our entire reign on earth we have faced problems. Wars, famine, development of new technology that grants us freedom...those were all exciting problems that everybody in the world could get involved in. We chose to go to the moon in that decade and do the other things, not because they were easy, but because they were hard. Even the people who weren’t directly solving these problems were interested in them, and we all derived a great sense of satisfaction seeing just what we were capable of.

We don’t seem to have any of these problems now though. Well, ok, we HAVE many problems. Third world hunger, overpopulation, global warming...these are definitely big problems that need solving. But we don’t seem to have the energy to tackle them anymore. Talented individuals work very hard to deal with them, but the full weight of society just isn’t behind the multitude of issues that we face. Many people have claimed that this is due to our relevant comfort, and I think that’s part of it but not the whole story. I think that there is a deeper driving force within both the collective and typical individuals that is missing in tackling these problems. Maybe we need a charismatic leader, maybe we need something to happen close to home that will wake us up, maybe we need some good propaganda...I don’t know.

Where is our feverish excitement for the hydrogen powered car?
Where is our feverish excitement for the hydrogen powered car?

We certainly have a drive to solve problems: that’s what a video game is, it’s a set of problems. But now instead of solving the real problems around us we’re busily making game problems for each other. This can be really healthy, because it grants us new insights, viewpoints and skills that we wouldn’t get from regular, every day interaction. But if we never learn to deal with the real world through these exercises, then we’re satisfying only the most basic part of our need for problems, and not putting that drive to good use. That drive...it’s what got us where we are. We should not squander something so great. If video games are the only area of puzzle solving that we have any interest in working on, then we’ve essentially given up on the outside world and fallen upon self-engineering, which is something that has been predicted in the past (technology as the next form of human evolution). And what are we left with when we have engineered ourselves into happiness? Can you design human satisfaction? Do we really want to?

It seems to be busy working on the latest League of Legends patch.
It seems to be busy working on the latest League of Legends patch.

What am I trying to say? I don’t pretend to fully understand myself. On some level, I guess I’m trying to come to terms with the general lack of depth and meaning that I feel in my life, and see in others. If I’m right about this on a broader level, then game enthusiasts are at the focal point of a really big problem that we aren’t going to be able to handle. Given that I’ve been wanting to make video games for my whole life, I am faced with a special quandary: is that even the right thing to be doing? Can I make games that push people to be excited about real world problems? Will anyone help me to do so?

Maybe we’re at the point where we’ve %100 completed the game of human interest. When that happens in a game, we usually spend some more time playing around with all of our new toys, but that gets boring fast. When you S-rank a game there are only really two options:

Move on to a new game...

Or start over.

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