Category Archives: Personal

Forgiveness as a Secular and Religious Topic

This is a little off topic, but it is the Personal section I suppose, and I haven’t written anything else in a while, so beggars can’t be choosers.

I read a fairly interesting post by Leah Lebrasco recently talking about a conversation she had with an athiest about coming up with good secular definitions of forgiveness that jived well with religious definitions or practices:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/2014/08/whats-the-difference-between-forgiveness-and-self-deception.html

With the for-knowledge that I’m not really talking or interacting with the post at this point, my best input for OP would be that secular forgiveness could be less about internalizing incorrect information and more about willingly eating the consequences of an action even though you don’t have an obligation to.

So even though I understand that I’m taking a disproportionate risk in the future, or suffering in the present, or treating another person better than they deserve, I’m doing so consciously because it sets that person up to be in a better position for the future than they are now.

And if I “forgive” someone but still think negative thoughts about them or let that influence some type of passive aggressive action towards them, I’m not really relieving them of the entire burden of what they’ve done. But I can still relieve someone of that burden and still accurately and honestly acknowledge how this event effects the way I view their probable actions in the future, and the pain it caused/causes me.

If I were following that definition, I don’t think I would look at forgiveness as being a universally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ quality to have, but a tool that needs to be applied in the right situations and in the right ways.

And I like Leah’s justification in that altering your behavior towards other people actually influences the way they act, although I can think of plenty of other reasons you might choose to bias a set of odds or privileges towards another person at your own expense.

All that being said, I think what you would look at as “religious” forgiveness would generally be more complicated than that because it would also take into account an idea of “wrongness” or telos, which would probably be a slightly foreign concept to a purely humanistic worldview, or at least most variants of that worldview that I’ve interacted with.

I know my own views of forgiveness center more around restoring “personhood” I guess (that’s not a very good word for it)? – Acknowledging an idea that wronging other people breaks the wrongdoer (and their telos) in a fundamental way, and forgiveness is more about repairing that thing rather than fixing the effects of that breakage, although restitution/restoration are often important and even crucial after-steps.

My guess is that most Christians I know don’t think of restoration/restitution as being extremely binary good/bad actions either – sometimes wronging others carries consequences to you, sometime’s you’re spared those consequences.

So when a Christian says that everyone should do their best to forgive others all of the time, they’re not necessarily referring to the same type of forgiveness that a secular person would be referring to if they said the same thing – it’s just that I think most Christians would insert a pre-step they’d call real ‘forgiveness’ and refer to the second part as something like ‘restoration’, with its own set of rules.

I realize this is going beyond OP’s original topic, but none of that means that a purely secular individual can’t rationally use or act on forgiveness, even if their mechanics might differ from a more religious person. I don’t think of forgiveness (in general, not going into specifics or implementation) as being an exclusive concept to one particular worldview. And in any case, I’m sure there are plenty of other people, both religious and atheist, who have thought longer and harder about this stuff than I have, so I would always be hesitant to start a conversation like this by saying “No, that’s OUR word, stop using it”.

In any case, closing down that part of the discussion might  prevent me from learning about something really interesting or useful for myself in the future.  A little while back, I got really interested in the concept of restorative justice, enough that I played around with a whole bunch of game mechanics and trying to relate them.  It didn’t result in any actual projects, which is good since there’s plenty of other stuff on my plate, including The Organizer, but it was really rewarding at the time.

I Went to the Woods: Tracy Fullerton

The following article is an adapted summary of a recent talk given by Tracy Fullerton at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  It is intended both to give a small lens into the views of the speaker, and to expand on those views where necessary to provide clarity  and spark discussion.  This article does not necessarily always represent the views of the author, and it does not necessarily provide a perfect or unfiltered reflection of the speaker’s opinions.

Walden is a survival game about doing more than just surviving.

Based on Henry David Thoreau’s famous work of the same name, the game gives players a simple task; survive in the woods for the space of a full year, ranging through 8 levels and 4 seasons.  Players finish constructing a cabin to live in, gather food, and perform other daily chores – everything they need to do to survive.

But over time, basic survival starts to become menial.  Colors in the game start to become grayer, and tasks start to become a grind.  This is where Walden opens up, and encourages its players to occasionally stop and explore – to collect arrowheads, examine plants, and, every once in a while, to simply stand still and admire a sunset or listen to the distant sounds of a civilization.

It’s not just an aesthetic choice – Walden literally tracks how much time you spend observing these phenomenon (self-deemed “wonders”), and makes the world more colorful, lush, and interesting as you encounter them.

Narrative Dissonance

Walden has been in development for nearly 7 years, and it served as a centerpiece to Tracy Fullerton’s musings on what game narrative is evolving towards: the potential of games to communicate ever more complex and nuanced ideas.

“It’s a big rock that people keep on trying to push up an ill-defined hill”

To this extent, a recurring theme throughout Fullerton’s talk was the role of narrative in games.  In modern games, she explained, narrative is misunderstood and misapplied: a component of interaction that we know is important, but aren’t sure of what to do with it or how to best show it to an audience.  ”It’s a big rock that people keep on trying to push up an ill-defined hill.”

“At their core, games are systems of play, ” Tracy remarked, “but for some reason, and I think valid reasons, we also crave for games to be dramatic, narrative, meaningful, and sublime.”

Tracy may have spent a good portion of her early career looking for ways to push narrative forward in games, experimenting with branching storylines, choose-your-own adventure style interactions, and complex, multi-layered stories, but she came away from her explorations with the opinion that, ironically enough, the games’ authors often liked these experiences more than players.

There was an odd disconnect between the academic ideals of the creators and the people actually looking at them, and the narratives being created had an all-too dreamlike quality: they felt engaging in the moment that the player was experiencing them, but fell apart in the light of day, or when re-communicated to other players.

Frustrated, Tracy decided to try tackling the problems of narrative from, as she put it, more “oblique” angles.

When an author tells a story, Tracy explained, the listener may be thinking of different things.  He/she might misinterpret what’s actually happening in the story, what its themes are, or come away feeling a disconnect from what the author actually wanted to communicated, even though the author and listener were each given the same information.

Learning to Dance

To solve these disconnects, we evolve memes and genres, which contain composite bundles of information that we can apply to every story we enter.  Memes, stereotypes, and our expectations of how they play out allow us to minimize the upfront work required to process complex stories and interactions.  For example, all good guys wear white hats, and we instinctively know to root for people wearing white hats.

Games however, haven’t really learned to use these genres effectively.  They’re simultaneously stereotypical and arcane or obscure: filled with mechanics and hooks that non-gamers can’t relate to, but also rooted in the most predictable and over-told stories, often lacking any surprise or subtlety outside of their mechanics.

“At their core, games are systems of play.”

Traditionally, games have attacked their reputations of triviality and cliche by attempting to brute force more narrative, exposition, and plot twists into whatever short stay they have with a player.  These strategies don’t hit at the roots of the problem though, and yield diminishing returns as we increasingly commit more and more of our resources to them.

To hear Tracy talk about narrative, stories have always been less about the dissemination of abstract information, and more about their tone, themes, and the emotional reactions they draw out of the people that experience them.  She describes the relationship between authors and consumers as a literal dance, where “sharing the narrative and interpreting the narrative is in itself a creative act.”

And rather than try to reiterate over the same three dances over and over or to dominate our partner in a vain attempt to control their movements in that dance, we should embrace the collaborative aspects of atypical narrative.

What do you see?

As an example, Tracy  hearkened back to the earliest days of development on Cloud, arguably one of the most critically acclaimed games she’s worked on.  Originally , the team had an extremely complicated backstory for the main character: an alien who was attempting to wash away pollution from their world.

After taking time off from the story to focus on gameplay and tone though, the team started to notice that the story wasn’t adding much, and indeed was actively in contrast to the simplistic and elegant design and feel to the rest of the game.  So they layered the simplest story possible, about a hospital resident imagining themselves floating in the air.

Many of the themes of pollution and nature remained, but they were exposed in more subtle ways, through levels where players washed decay away with rainclouds, and with vast scenic islands.

What the team found was that people started not only empathizing with the character more, but also bringing their own memories into the experience and investing them into the narrative, and they were able to do this because of purposeful gaps and open areas of the game.

Tracy explained that these gaps “promote professional and amateur expansion.” People are able to fill in many details on their own, to flesh out the narrative of the game on their own; and these newly constructed stories are much more personal and empathetic than they otherwise would be.

“If you ask me about my play of Journey, ” Tracy elaborated, “the feeling of that lost civilization and the fact that there was a lost civilization does give me a feeling, but, really, it gives me a tone.”

That freedom, and the concentration on the tone and theme of a story beyond specific details, treats narrative as a framework upon which players build their own experiences.  It’s, in Tracy’s eyes, a more respectful, cooperative way to make games.

Tying a story to a specific piece of information, an extra level of complexity that forces the player to interact with the games themes only from a specific angle and via a very specific methodology, gets in the way of all of that.  You can risk drowning your audience in an attempt to make sure they “get” every piece of your experience and ignoring the potential cultural and personal gaps between author and consumer.

Again, Tracy emphasizes, this is a dance.

Playing with stories

All of that leads back to Walden, and Tracy’s constant struggle towards games that invoke that elusive sense of sublime.  After 7 years of development, Walden still hasn’t been released, but Tracy seems happy with where the game is going.

“Games have the possibility of being lenses that amplify our personal experiences and our narratives.”

“You can trust in your process and your team as long as you stay centered on what attracted you to a difficult idea,” she explains.

Well-trodden stories and arcs like the Hero’s Journey are great, but Tracy’s looking for new ways of approaching narrative in entirely, and she’s convinced that these atypical frameworks will enable creators to steadily get closer and closer to the ‘sublime’ they’re looking to express.

Tracy reflected on a previous experience she had playing Warcraft and visiting a mountain in the game with a friend.  While playing the game, she suddenly recollected a previous hiking trip in China, and was surprised to find that both the similar and contrasting elements served to underscore and enhance her memories.

She clarified, “Games have the possibility of being lenses that amplify our personal experiences and our narratives.”

Tracy is adamant that it’s through games that she wants to explore this idea.  She’s seen the attitude that art experiences and sublime narratives are separated from games and should be pursued separately, but disagrees.

“I love games and I think they’re one of the most beautiful aesthetic forms we’ve ever created…  When a form changes and when it evolves, that doesn’t mean it divorces itself from its really beautiful roots.”

Player Roles: Observers and Participants

Standard disclaimer, take everything I say with a grain of salt, etc etc… views can change and every theory evolves.  I am by no means whatsoever an expert on game design.  Form your own opinions.

Fighting yourself

A little less than a year ago, I wrote a post talking about what I viewed as a dichotomy between obsession and contextualization in ideal media consumption.  I ended up asking:

To summarize, my problem was an observation that some my best experiences with media happened when I obsessed over the content, whether that content be games, book, movies, or anything like that.  I was also observing that trends like escapism and long-term obsession were harmful to my overall health and overall media consumption.

This was really weird, and I didn’t like it.

Traditionally, when we talk about player motivation, we bring up classification systems like, for instance, the Bartle types of players.  These theories, for the most part, work well.  The problem isn’t that they’re wrong, but that they are riddled with problems when we rely on them for generalized design:

  • They’re limited in scope - Bartle types only describe player goals, not how they interact with those goals. They deal with player motivations on a somewhat surface level, but they don’t look at the root causes of those motivations, which causes us to run into bizarre edge cases that don’t fit neatly into categories.
  • They’re not as predictive or as useful as we would like – It’s difficult to design a game with Bartle types in mind. There’s not a lot of depth to implementation of Bartle types into games, and there’s not a lot of room for us to build theories on top of Bartle types.  We’d like a theory that allows us to expand in the future.
  • They’re trying to do different things than designers want - Bartle types (and similar classification systems) are designed to place players into categories – to explain in general terms what a player’s motivation is.  That’s a very good thing, but it doesn’t really help us describe how players play games or what it looks like when players play games.  Essentially, these classification systems are just more information on demographics.  Bartle might be completely correct, but we’re looking for different information than he’s providing.

Again, this isn’t to say that I think Bartle is wrong – just that I don’t think his theory alone is sufficient when talking about player motivations.  I’m looking for a descriptive theory; one that describes what the process of playing a game looks like for the average player, and one that I can use to shape how my game treats the player and what it shows the player at any given moment.  If at all possible, I would want my theory to avoid interfering with Bartle types and to avoid replacing them, but rather attack a different part of player motivation so that both theories could survive in harmony.

Ideally, I’d like to use something similar to a narrative arc, but applied to players.  And because it’s been bothering me a lot over the past year, I want it to address some of the concerns I had in the previous article about the relationship of contextualization and obsession/escapism in games.

Let me steal a name for this:

There’s a data-gathering technique in anthropology called Participant observation – it’s not really all that similar to this, at all.  But there are things that feel the same at first glance, so it’s perhaps not so bad that the names and terms I’m using are similar.  Basically, Participant observation works off the theory that we’re best suited to gather data on a culture if we’re in that culture; but not so far in that culture that we lose our objectivity.  So the people using this method try to maintain a balance between their roles inside a group and their role outside of a group.

In a generalized sense, I would like think of players as a type of Participant observer – a researcher that immerses him/herself in your game to gather information.  It’s a crude, inaccurate and incomplete analogy that will break down steadily as you read through this article, but there are some useful parallels to draw from it.

To be more specific and more accurate, I propose that we’re incorrect  to talk about a player’s experience from a singular perspective, and that it would be more accurate to break the player into multiple sub-characters, who will switch control with each other as needed throughout the entire experience.  The idea is to think of a “player” as someone who consists of two entirely separate yet simultaneously acting individuals who advise each other and trade off control of the individual.

I refer to participants and observers as literally being separate people, working together to form a singular “player unit” – almost as if the player had multiple personalities that manifested themselves as they played a game or watched a movie.  The reality is, of course, probably more complicated, but this distinction allows us as designers to remove a large number of contradictions in our understanding of how players interact with games, because we no longer need to view player’s engagement as a singular static process.

Each “part” of the player fulfills one of two separate roles: the observer and the participant.

I’ll go into these roles in more detail below, but to quickly summarize, observers act as gatekeepers to gauge a game’s quality, the creators intent and execution, and the effect of the game on the player.  To do this the observer takes a realistic, objective approach to the media.

Participants take an approach that a game, its mechanics, and worldview, are real, or at least reflect reality in a completely perfect sense.  This is a more difficult concept to wrap one’s head around, but would be closely related to what we would more commonly refer to as a suspension of disbelief, or immersion, or a sense of empathy for what is happening in a game.

Fun With Spam

One of the joys of running a blog or a website is getting spam.  My spam comes and goes in waves, sometimes I’ll get one or two per day, once I got nearly 60. I go through my spam to make sure I don’t ever accidentally filter out comments, and in the process, I’ve found that there are several basic groups that most of my spam falls under.

I’d like to take you on a wild ride through some of them.

“Website traffic doesn’t come easy these days. It’s hard and it usually takes a long time. In many cases, too much time… So much that you might be ready to call it quits. Someone shared a web traffic service with me on my website and I want to share it with you. I was skeptical at first but I tried their free trial period and it turns out they are able to get hundreds of visitors to my website every day. My advertising revenue has increased tenfold. Check them out here: [CENSORED LINK]“

The best analogy I can think of for this is someone walking into a restaurant, receiving a meal, and then standing up and shouting at the top of their lungs, “I know a guy who’s really good at promoting restaurants, so maybe if a manager or waiter is listening, you might want to talk to me!”

I understand this must occasionally work or else they wouldn’t do it, but I can’t filter into a separate context. I guess one of the differences is that when you shouted in the restaurant, the other patrons could gather around you, box you in, and cause you literal physical harm.  And I guess that can’t really happen on a website, unfortunately.

A similar genre…

Hello Web Admin, I noticed that your On-Page SEO is is missing a few factors, for one you do not use all three H tags in your post, also I notice that you are not using bold or italics properly in your SEO optimization. On-Page SEO means more now than ever since the new Google update: Panda. No longer are backlinks and simply pinging or sending out a RSS feed the key to getting Google PageRank or Alexa Rankings, You now NEED On-Page SEO. So what is good On-Page SEO?[CENSORED EXTREMELY LONG, DETAILED, UTTERLY RIDICULOUS DESCRIPTION OF "GOOD ON-PAGE SEO"] ….wait there’s even more Now what if i told you there was a simple WordPress plugin that does all the On-Page SEO, and automatically for you? That’s right AUTOMATICALLY, just watch this 4minute video for more information at [CENSORED]

There’s a guy someplace imagining how I’m going to go over this and say, “Well this kind commentator sure knows what he’s talking about.  My goodness this is scary;  I don’t have time to fiddle around with h1 tags or to make sure my links contain my keyword and I don’t do html, and what the heck am I ever going to do about this awful situat- HOLY CRAP THERE’S A PLUGIN AND A 4 MINUTE VIDEO I CAN WATCH AND FIX EVERYTHING?  TELL ME MORE GOOD SIR!  TELL ME MORE RIGHT NOW!”

Moving on from straight up advertisements…

“Many thanks for this article. I’d personally also like to convey that it can become hard when you are in school and starting out to establish a long credit standing. There are many learners who are simply just trying to endure and have a protracted or beneficial credit history can be a difficult element to have.”

Thanks for your comment! I was just complaining that magic systems in first person games have started to develop an unfortunate tendency to devolve into a secondary gun slot that uses manna instead of bullets, but I can see how that would make you think about credit standings.

“Travelled on the internet and got here. What a wonderful invention of mankind . Through a network communicate , study , read … So you met .”

Sometimes spam teeters between making sense and making you double take. For instance, this person is very excited about this newfangled world-wide-web.  Good for him.

Greetings, super job, basically wasnt so busy with my searching I just read your full blog. I should say i have to express gratitude!

I shouldn’t make fun of this one, maybe it was just written in a foreign language and translated poorly? I seem to recall reading an article at one point that described a fair number of spam operations as being sweatshops in foreign countries. Unnamed worker, I already feel bad that you’re being forced to work a morally dubious job in probably fairly terrible conditions so that you can provide for your family on a doubtless insufficient income. Insulting your English feels like I’m crossing a line. I probably should have let that one go through on the off-chance a worker somewhere would get a pay-raise from it.

This post concerning SEO gives remove picture for new SEO users that how to do SEO,whereupon reserve it up. Good work

Not sure about this one though. Ignoring the grammar entirely, I’ve already shown a very detailed comment above that was telling me I needed a lot of help with SEO.  So at the very least, I already know you have lower standards than most of my other readers, and I’m inclined to ignore your advice.

“#uname, maybe you ‘re right. But do not overlook the back of this issue. Here can see the Old by your question [CENSORED LINK] Christmas tree coupon Oh and do not forget the main issue raised in the topic.Source Code – Pong Clone | Latinforimagination”

And this is just insulting. Your stinking code is all broken. I even know exactly what your problem is – you’re not handling edge cases.  Your comment generation stuff doesn’t know what to do when it’s not replying to something with a readily available username, so it just throws the default field in. But look, this is easy to fix.

There.  It’s not elegant, but it will work, and you won’t even need to edit any of your ‘fill up textBlock’ code to integrate it in. I have to ask though, if this whole system is automated, is there a specific reason you couldn’t come up with a more readable comment to copy and paste to articles?  You’re smart enough to set up a bot to do your spam for you, but can’t proofread your comment to try and get it to make sense?

“whoah this weblog is wonderful i like reading your articles. Keep up the good work! You know, many individuals are looking around for this information, you can aid them greatly.”

Back to the spammers that actually care enough to type in coherent sentences.  It’s the small details that I’m really grateful for, like the comma in the compound sentence. They did miss a period and some capitalization, but heck if I’ve never had erors on this blog, so I suppose it’s not my place to throw stones.

Spam length varies as well.  Some spam, like what you see above, is long and flowery, assuring me of my place in a world of uninformed masses, wildly searching for my tomes of knowledge. And some is more succinct.

“Nice man”

This is then followed by somewhere around, and I am not even remotely exaggerating here, 46  links to different profiles on a personal branding site. But I’m guessing I’m meant to think the top line was the main point and the rest of it just an afterthought.

Hey, at least they’re better than the posts titled only with word like :

“Deniskrav”

I’ll be honest, I don’t know what this means.  I’d like to assume it’s just in another language, but it’s quite possible this isn’t even a word.

Culture Shock

Mid 2013, I participated in a Microsoft sponsored development jam with two of my roommates, Robert Adams (The Organizer) and Sean Brennan (Eyes Open).  Sean wanted to do something with AI, particularly with how an agent might see something happen and misinterpret what was going on, so for 48 hours we played around with that concept and the result was Culture Shock, a simulation of cultural conflict and individual biases and preconceptions. Continue reading

Let’s Plays and other Videos

I’ve noticed that a lot of my posts recently have been somewhat abstract and esoteric, so I thought I’d talk about something a bit lighter both that I’ve spent less time thinking about and also that has more room for conversation.  I’m a big fan of the Let’s Play communities on sites like youTube, and I find myself more often than you might expect trying to explain to people in my major what the appeal of a Let’s Play video actually is.

Obviously, this is a much broader topic than what I’m going to talk about here, so if I miss something you feel is important, feel free to mention it in the comments.  I’m also going to be talking less about Minecraft or other creative mediums, which would warrant a post in and of themselves, although there are certainly some interesting discussions to be had there. In terms of something straightforward though – a game with a definite beginning and end – why would someone watch that?  Why would someone look at a Let’s Play for a game that they could (or already have) just played themselves? Continue reading

Pay-to-Win is not the problem

I’ve been reading up on it, and apparently mobile games are the future, so it’s time for a discussion on Free-to-Play.

I want to clarify at the beginning: I don’t mind the Free-to-Play model, and I think there are a lot of developers doing clever things with it. So if you’re hoping that this post is going to decry the scourge on the industry, it’s not.  Sorry.  I also want to clarify that this post isn’t going to be about how to build Free-to-Play games properly, and it’s not going to be a really detailed overview of every problem or issue surrounding Free-to-Play. Other people know a lot more about the nuanced details than I do, so they can handle all of that. Continue reading

12 ways we can do magic differently in games.

About a month ago I finally sat down and thought through all the ways that magic annoys me as a mechanic, which can all basically be summed up as “it’s boring and doesn’t feel like magic.”  This was right about the time that this article came out, so I figured if other people were already talking about it, there was no point in cluttering up the space with my own opinions.

But now it’s started to die down so there’s less baggage on the topic, and I really do still take issue with magic, and I really don’t think that the previous article addressed why.  While Critical Intel has the right idea (current systems don’t feel right), I don’t feel like it goes anywhere with the idea.  And I don’t think that praising Skyrim’s “press A to do magic but first we’ll play an animation of you shouting” mechanic is pushing us in the right direction either.

I don’t like magic as a mechanic, and I don’t think changing the flavor text helps all that much when your mechanic counteracts what you’ve written.

I should clarify – dislike is a strong word.  I don’t have a problem with games using their current systems.  It doesn’t make my blood boil.  I’m just really bored with the whole genre and I want people to do some exciting things.  All the mechanics we have now are fine – they’re just light, fluffy, and kind of sub-par as far as magic goes.  And it’s fine for a game to skimp on it.  But I’d like some not to.

Because ideologically, magic is stinking messed up.  It’s magic.  It works differently on every level than everything else we see in the world.  And if you can’t, purely from mechanics alone, tell the difference between magic and superpowers and technology and your bio-attacks, as far as I’m concerned you haven’t made a magic system, you’ve just made a standard combat system and placed the word “magic” on top of it.

But there are plenty of people already saying stuff like that.  The point I want to make is not that magic is broken or that people should be ashamed of themselves or whatever.  I want you to realize that magic could be much more exciting.

So instead, I’m just going to rattle off the top of my head just about every way I can think of that we could do a magic system that I think would feel unique and interesting and actually magical in at least some way.

It’s not an exhaustive or incredibly researched list.  I’m sure there are a ton more you could think of, and I’m sure there are a ton of problems I’m overlooking. But the point still stands, we don’t have to stay where we are.  There are a ridiculous number of things you could try as a designer right now.  Go try them.

———————————————————————-

Magic as an Exchange
The Greeks used animal sacrifices to get the gods to answer their prayers.  We’re not talking about deities in this column, but the philosophy is the same.  Equivalent exchange – you give something to magic, magic gives you something back.  Mana… kind of works.  But it’s not really a sacrifice, it’s a resource, like electricity, or salts.  So forget that, let’s do magic that costs you.  Make me know that every spell is an exchange, an act of giving something up that’s precious to me.  Bending the universe should not be free.

  1. Here’s an easy start – drop the mana-bar and just use my health.  Make my spells drain my health bar.  It’s just one little change, and it would make me actually think really hard about using my special powers in the next survival game I played.  And it would streamline both mechanics and drops, decreasing barrier of entry to the game.
  2. Make magical costs less tangible.  I’m forgetting the book off the top of my head that talks about a cost of magic being literally the act of you short-circuiting the world: you lose the experience, joy, and lessons you’d have gained from doing something the “correct” way -So  how about on top of mana or health you also sacrifice battle rewards, or reduce the amount of XP you get from a battle?  People that relied on magic too much would have more difficulty progressing, so they’d need to balance between taking an easy solution out, or sticking to a more conventional and possibly more difficult approach.
  3. Sacrifice an item to cast a spell.  Take it a step farther; if I’m in an rpg with equipment, you could track my attachment to the item, just by keeping track of how long I’ve used it.  It would be really insanely easy, and then you could scale the power based on how useful I’ve found the item.  You’d need to do a lot of spell balancing here as a designer – your spells would need to be more powerful because you couldn’t spam them nearly as much.  But in a game with, say, perma-death, forcing the player to make a deep permanent sacrifice in the hope of saving their life is a fairly intriguing concept.
  4. Speaking of making hard choices, let’s talk about games like Fire Emblem.  How about we build magic to be more desperate – what if we made you sacrifice a unit to cast a spell?  Or at the very least, poison them or give them a negative status effect or drain a portion of their life.  What if your magicians were literally sucking the lives out of their comrades to cast their spells?

Magic as the Unknown
A lot of work goes into making magic concrete, which I sometimes find myself being very annoyed by.  An alternative view of magic is that it shouldn’t make sense.  Ever.  If it did, it wouldn’t be magic.  We can make that happen in games, or at least make an illusion of that happen.

  1. Make interesting things happen when you fail to cast a spell.  Instead of learning a spell, then giving you a 100 percent success rate, increase your mastery of the spell.  Make it less random the more you use it.
  2. Give it invisible effects.  Thaumcraft pulls this off really well with a system that spawns things and messes with the world the more an area gets “contaminated”  (Thaumcraft is a really good example of cool magic in general).  It’s not a great example of magic, but Binding of Isaac adds tons of random effects all the time, and it works great.  Make it react differently depending on what situation you’re in.  Make it randomize part of the world you haven’t seen yet.  Keep track of it and use it to mess with the player’s head later.  Lie to the player and pretend to randomize it, then bias it towards certain results instead.  People have tons of built in biases that they spend a lot of time trying to avoid.  Exploit them – literally make logic not work anymore for your game, or at least make it really stinking hard to use.

Magic from an Art that is Learned
If nothing else, magic is artistic, so let’s add a small level of personality and customization to what we’re doing.  Allow for a level of quality checking with each spell and give me a clear method of improving my spell effectiveness outside of standard leveling systems.  Allow me to quickly use spells in and out of combat without bringing up a menu.  Allow me to learn a ton of spells and tie that into something like, say, memorization, rather than how many xp I’ve sunk into the spell.  Give me a use for actually studying your game world and not just skipping through the text.

  1. Gesture based casting, preferably with  Leap Motion, although pretty much every console has ways to pull this off as well.  The Wii U even has that nifty touchscreen so you could build an interface around it.
  2.  Voice activated casting.  Plus about a billion points if you allow us to custom record our own commands for spells, and allow us to rattle them off mid-battle without a menu or anything while we’re duel wielding.  Forget number one, nobody uses hands to cast magic.
  3. Pre-building specific spells before battle using a crafting system.  Use runes.  Put the recipes for spells inside of books that we find around the world.  Make them complicated.  Make our level up mechanic literally be finding a book and writing down the recipe.  Then long before we need the spell, we’ll hunt for the runes, combine them (not at a crafting station or at a store or anything lame like that), and then pull them out and fire them off in the next battle.  Or just go play and copy Thaumcraft as mentioned above, because it already does this incredibly well.
  4. Magic that monitors my emotional state.  Ok fine, now I’m reaching, but we do actually have the tech: supposedly the PS4 will ship with some of it.  I’d like you to monitor my emotions and force me to invoke certain ones to power up my spells.  See how specific you can get with the current technology – monitor my face and make me laugh if I want to heal someone, or use anger to cast damaging spells.  I should need to learn how to trigger or suppress my own feelings on command – a valuable skill both in games and in the real world.
  5. It goes without saying that any huge complicated casting system that was actually learnable would go here.  There are a lot of games that do this already though, so it’s not necessarily worth getting into.  More should.  Especially roguelikes and games like Minecraft. 

Magic as Empowerment
Last but not least, what if we’re looking at magic as a power fantasy?  That’s the sort of default draw that most fantasies use for their evil Wizards, isn’t it?  So, if we’re putting a player into that role, let’s put the player into that role.  In this case, we’ll constantly think about magic as a way of asserting dominance over an enemy.

A fair number of brawlers have rage meters,  which I think are an excellent mechanic.  The way you get the reward is the way you ought to – you attack or kill lots of things very rapidly, and eventually you enter a raged state where you’re invincible and it’s even easier to kill things.  The mechanic matches the philosophy.  We’ll do some similar stuff, but we’ll switch it around to match the demented philosophy of magical dominance.

  1. Convert enemy health to mana.  This would work as a brawler game mechanic – instead of killing enemies, you’d tag them, and their health would slowly start to convert to a form that you could use in spells.  Leave your enemies alive and unscathed for long enough, and you could eventually release your magic, instantly killing a). all of the hosts that you had just drained of health to cast your spell, and b). any unfortunate enemy in the path of your spell.  As a mechanic, you force the player to balance between immediate, rage-filled violence, and calculated-cold violence.  Leave enemies alive so you can exploit them all at once, or kill them off to make it easier.  It encourages players to see enemies as resources to be exploited, not just as something to be overcome – which is exactly how a power-hungry magician would look at everyone around them.

And that’s the main point of all of this.  I don’t have anything against the current systems that most games use.  They just don’t even remotely feel like the magical systems I see in most books and movies.  There are a ridiculous number of philosophical ways of looking at the supernatural.  I don’t hold it against the games that ignore all of that, but I’d love for more games to explore that, even slightly.  I’d love my mechanics to match what games say I’m doing.

Obsession, Escapism, Wish Fulfillment – Proper Media Consumption pt. 1

Obsession is weird, but interesting.

This post might feel a bit disconnected from the rest of the blog, which I overwhelmingly use just for postmortems and the occasional coding rants – Please bear with me though.  I think what I plan on doing is writing several successive posts (sometime) that expand on the stuff here and organize it into more of a coherent theory.

There are two things going on with an initial post of this nature : firstly, I want you to have a good preview of the topic so if you think it’s intriguing you can go off and do your own research, and secondly, I want you to know where I’m coming from so in the future you’re better equipped to make intelligent decisions about whether or not you agree with me and can see exactly where I’ve gone right or wrong.

I’ve been thinking lately about the way I play games – specifically what makes me like or dislike a game outside of the content of a game itself.  It’s tough to deconstruct behaviors or do research in cases like this for several reasons -

a) There’s a huge variability in the games I play, and
b) It’s tough for me to reassess a game after I’ve already formed an opinion on it.

And of course, complicating the above,
c) There’s only so much objective research I can do on a game analysis without losing out on the really important bits.

I’m an introverted person, and I do the overwhelming majority of my game theory research by deconstructing my own feelings – it’s something that, in my humble opinion, I have gotten quite good at.  I don’t mean deconstruction in the literary sense but rather that I start with a finished observation and try and break it down into smaller ideas instead of starting with smaller ideas and using them to predict what I should be seeing.  I start with the forest and work my way down to the trees, not the other way around, ie. interpretation rather than correction.

Whether or not that’s acceptable methodology for analysis is a subject for another post, but the point is that because I think about games this way, when I objectively divorce myself from the experience or feelings I’m having during a game I find it much more difficult to draw useful conclusions.  Hence the difficulty resolving c) and b).  Sometimes I’m not sure how much my views on a game are influenced by the way that I play a game and how much they reflect the actual quality, which always makes me nervous whenever I research topics like this.

I don’t like escapism; I don’t think it’s healthy, and I don’t think it really satisfies you as a consumer.  I’ve talked about this a little bit in the past, but I usually take the view that when a game, movie, or book draws you into its world so much that you want to disregard the real world, you’re sort of missing the point of the whole experience.  Reality is satisfying.  I know that there are a number of people that fundamentally disagree with me on this point, and even among the people that do agree with me, a large number don’t take the reasoning quite as far as I do, but again, that’s a subject for another post.

Suffice to say that when I encounter media that makes me want to obsess over it, my first reaction is usually to ask myself, “what do I really want, and how do I get it?”  If I’m drawn to a game, it’s probably because there’s something that I could be doing or exploring in the real world that I’m not right now.

So having just said all of that, you would probably expect me to advocate for a balanced consumption of media with other activities – read a chapter of a book, play a half-hour of a game, etc… then go out and meet some friends and do real world stuff.  That should be healthy.  I would expect this to be my view as well.

I’m finding that it isn’t.  Overwhelmingly, when I consume media in small chunks, it doesn’t have the same impact on me as when I obsess over it.

For instance, I’ve played through somewhere between 4 and 6 hours of Aquaria, maybe the first quarter of the game, mostly because I felt obligated to (next post).  I am fairly certain it’s a good game.  I am pretty sure that it is a game I should like.  In fact, it should be one of my favorite games.  Almost every element of the narrative and mechanics excites me on a very deep level.

But I never actually, you know, finished it.  Because I played it responsibly, and balanced it with my classes and went out and did other stuff every other night.  So of course it couldn’t hold my interest because I never really gave it my interest beyond a very cursory glance.

I read through Fallout Equestria, a massive 625,000 word novel, in less than three days, then I spent another two or three thinking about pretty much nothing else except the universe : it was a vastly different experience to Aquaria.  Looking back, I have issues with the book, both in its execution and its content, but I definitely enjoyed it more than Aquaria, and I definitely remember the experience with a lot more fondness – I learned a lot about my own worldview during that period, and I can say that because of it, Fallout Equestria is honestly one of my favorite books.

Of course, the material had a great deal to do with that - Fallout Equestria had to actually be a good book.  And of course, I did move on and stop thinking about the universe, if that step never happened I’d be inclined to think there was something wrong.  I allowed myself to become obsessed, let it linger for a while, figured out what I was actually obsessed with, and then came up with a final analysis.  But that small period where I allowed the story to become reality was an integral part of the experience, and that’s still slightly confusing to me.

I know from personal experience that escapism makes my life worse and me unhappy, and that media application makes my life better and me happier, but whenever I try and throw obsession out of the window in totality and just focus on the application bit, I ruin the whole thing and get neither escapism or morals.

Games (and media in general) are good at communicating because they employ escapism and wish fulfillment.  That allows them to do some special things.  Of course all of this makes them very very dangerous, but not so dangerous that we don’t want to occasionally trust them with our time.  Media is special; unlike almost any other medium it lets us actually experience empathy for another person’s worldview.  But in order to take part in that, you need to be willing to temporarily lose your grip on your own worldview; to take the experience at face value and treat it like reality, and leave off all of your processing and analysis for later.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we spend a lot of time rejecting that to the point that we throw up a lot of blockades.  We go into art like connoisseurs rather than explorers – we treat media like some type of abridged essay – we skim it just long enough to get the general idea, very quickly form an opinion on whether or not we like it, and then jump right back out.

My question then is whether or not there exists an objective sweet spot somewhere between healthy consumption and pure escapism, and more importantly, can we use that line to correct some of the bad habits we have when we engage with games in the first place?

When people talk about the “good old day”‘ of gaming, what I suspect they really mean is, “back when I was able to actually devote my whole attention to a medium on its own terms without analyzing it and forming a bunch of half-baked opinions on every individual part of it.”  There was no good old day for games, you were just a better player.

Which I know isn’t exactly helpful, but I’ll go into more detail about that at some undisclosed distant time.  I do have a number of theories on the subject, but like anything else, it’s complicated, and I think I want to cement them more in my own mind before I talk about them.  Until then, maybe you have some ideas?  How do you play games?

Back Alley Witness

I’m a huge Mafia fan despite the obvious flaws, so I’ve been excited to try its more streamlined adaptation, Are You the Traitor? for a while.  I thought I’d get the chance this Thanksgiving.  Unfortunately when I broached the subject to my family, multiple people came forward about being turned off by the medieval/fantasy setting.

I could see their point; it is an overused trope in a lot of board games, so I offered the following suggestion: I’d rename the cards and rewrite the plot over the afternoon to incorporate an actual mob type setting, and we’d try it out then.

It struck me as I was working my way through the rules later on in the day that Are You the Traitor actually had a number of elements that I didn’t really think would work well; so I did a rough-draft of a variant that worked its way back towards the Mafia roots.  My family played a round, and then my brother-in-law and I sat down and talked through the rules.  He added a good number of refinements, and even ended up nailing down the final setup.

The entire process ended up taking around 2 hours, and five of us spent around another 60 to 90 minutes playing it, and it seems to work pretty well.  If you want to give it a try, I’ve embedded a doc of the rules below.  Note that this is licensed under the creative commons attribution-noncommercial license, which is a little bit more restrictive than the stuff I normally post.

Link to the doc itself here.