Saturday, 1 January 2022

Games as Emotion (Part Two)

Looking back at my older blog series, I guess I've broken the post title convention I used to adopt, which was The Blog Post - Part One (The Partening) or something like that. I guess if you want a subtitle, then I guess part one might be Sadness, but this part two would be Making, which of course makes no sense.

A big part of the reason I've played a lot more games this year, is that they've got a lot easier to play. Roughly this time last year, I spent a bit too much money on a new rig with a 3080 and a curved QHD high refresh rate monitor and as a result games got a lot smoother than my slightly upgraded rig from 2012.

I bought it, of course, to play the PC release of Death Stranding (104 hours), which is an incredible visual feast of a game with DLSS running. I also played and finished Deathloop (time not tracked?) and Rage 2 (40 hours), started and finished a new play through of Prey (around 15-20 hours), and played Hell Let Loose (191 hours), The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (72 hours), Mad Max (47 hours), The Witness (15 hours), Cyberpunk 2077 (6 hours?, I've done one quest after the opening), Disco Elysium (5 hours?, I've made it out the front door of the hotel and visited a book shop), Neocab (time not tracked), replayed half of Titanfall 2 (time delta not tracked because the game whips by), wasted my time getting frustrated by bad stealth mechanics in Alien Isolation (90 minutes) and am still unsure how the majority of games systems work or what I was doing in Destiny 2 (51 hours). Of those games, Death Stranding, Hell Let Loose and the Witcher 3 have become the 5th, 4th and 6th most played games of mine since Steam started recording that sort of thing. I also clocked some hours on Slay the Spire which is undoubtedly up there on time played.

This is mostly to say that the human brain loves lists (or perhaps a table or pie chart), and I am no exception. But my play experience has been made well by getting a new PC, and in turn, I've been able to play a number of well made games. And the games on this list are well made in the sense they exhibit a technical mastery of art and video game development. But that's not what I mean when I used the phrase "well-made" in the previous post.

Instead I think specifically of the interactions between the game, it's systems and aesthetics, and the player, the act of playing itself, to create a story which is experienced in a completely separate mode from being told or shown it: making a story. I've intuitively discarded alternate phrasings like "well-played", "well-designed" or "well-done" (doing a story), because of unwanted meanings associated with those phrases and because I want to emphasise the (conscious and unconscious) choices of the people making the game (in all its aspects, not just game design). I'm trying to gesture towards an active process: the construction of a "well-made" story requires the presence of a player who willingly enters the magic circle and plays the game aided by the game design suspending their disbelief and engaging them. However there are enough random factors in any game and player that I don't want to put any blame on a player if they don't experience the emotion affect intended: this is the distinction between "well-made" and a hypothetical "well-played".

In this sense, a game is a tool that allows a player to generate emotional experiences.

(And now I am torn, because maybe the term should be "well-generated" stories, but I've already used and abused 'generate' too much).

What I'm trying to capture here is best expressed by Hell Let Loose, a first person multiplayer collaborative shooter, where players effectively enter a deliberately limited consensual reality that largely mimics specific World War 2 scenarios. Hell Let Loose defies some conventions of these games while embracing others, but at its heart, much like Death Stranding, it tries to force people to communicate and collaborate in specific modes and channels to achieve objectives. Hell Let Loose does this using a number of now standard mechanisms (pings, voice and chat, group voice and chat) but creates vertical and horizontal choke points in these mechanisms which require players depend on each other to overcome. Players read compass directions and map grids and symbols to each other because targets are hard to see and quickly become dangerous; audio channels become expressive if used sparingly but jammed if overused, with officers having to observe, listen to and use channels and expressions that their squad is not privy to; building and attacking dynamically placed critical infrastructure is more important than individual achievements.

And, unlike a co-op shooter like Left 4 Dead, Hell Let Loose has a wide breadth of experiences for players to choose from, all of which are weighted with enough significance so that they meaningfully impact play: you can choose from driving a supply truck, firing artillery, desperately trying to flank a tank to hit it with one of only two rockets, and so on, so that the potentially each of these actions is a unique experience generator even nearing 200 hours of play. For instance, last night I lead a squad for 10 minutes to push a supply truck 200 meters up a road to try to get a second attacking garrison into Foy, only to have to abandon it to defend a previously well-defended position that was now falling on the other side of the map. For those 10 minutes, moving that truck while under fire was the most important thing we could do, and none of us ever before had had driving a truck such a short distance become so meaningful in the game.

These stories are not "well-told" or "well-shown": they are unique to games. And I am wise enough to see the hand of the game makers in making specific choices in Hell Let Loose that I see a continuum between single player, highly authored experiences like Death Stranding and multi player chaotic experiences like Hell Let Loose.

I'm going to pause a while, play some more Hell Let Loose and then think about writing a part three.

Games as emotion (Part One)

 2021 was a year where I reconnected with playing games in a big way. I played a lot more games. I finished games. And I felt a lot more strongly in games.

To be clear, I didn't feel a lot more strongly about games. As has probably been obvious from this blog feed and the lack of any Roguelike Radio episodes for more than a year, I have cared less and thought less about games than probably any time in the last decade. The exception maybe the TTRPG I've been working on since 2015, but even then releasing it has felt less urgent than probably at any point during its development.

This is because I am tired of the whole rotten industry edifice: the abuse of game maker and critics by players and funders continues to harm, burn out and drive away those people in the industry while enabling abusers. I quit BGG a few years back because of the way that community ignored, created and facilitated that actively hostile environment, and I genuinely see no end in sight anywhere in the industry. The world wide failure to deal with COVID should be clear to everyone by now that capitalism ensures there is no end.

While I'm highlighting the power imbalance between workers and consumers, I should be clear that there is no safe part of the industry: game players are just as trapped in this systemic abuse as anyone else, nor elsewhere in the world. My non-game industry day job is about 8 out of 10 on the actively evil scale and I spend as much effort as I can afford trying to get it to a 7.

But games in 2021 made me shout out emotions: fiero, joy, boredom, regret, surprise and surprisingly sadness, in a complex palette, in brief shared exchanges with strangers and in ways that no other medium can possibly encompass.

I'm writing this because I want to talk out a distinction I felt between emotions engaged by games and emotions engaged by narrative in games. I'm sure that there's plenty of writing and analysis out there about this (post in the comments if you know of any), but I'm going to try to tease these out myself so excuse any old ground that I'm walking over in a way that doesn't patent infringe by causing a narrow path to slightly broaden (thanks Sony!).

And that brings me to the first feeling I want to talk about, and probably the most complex: sadness in Death Stranding. Parasocial twitter mutual GB 'doc' Burford has written extensively about this elsewhere but I want to call out a different time Death Stranding hit me in the feels: the literal end of the Elder quest chain. Quest chain is the wrong word: Death Stranding does part of what I asked for many years ago and turns quests into a trading-like game, although like everything the game does, it makes the them most gentle and forgiving version of that idea.

On this scale, the Elder is the more annoying version. He's out of the way, requires that you climb up to the top of a hill without being technically difficult, and offers little in the way of rewards. The Elder also delays his connections to the chiral network just to rub it in your face: he doesn't want you there and the game does little to pay back your investment. Unlike another mission giver, there is no hidden back story, no secrets or twist. The Elder starts being unpleasant to your face, eventually begins to like and praise you and, just as I got towards the end of the game, he leaves you a message saying he's dying and then dies.

And his death left me in tears.

I have a good relationship with my father. He nearly died last November, which is to say that I have possibly felt a tiny fraction of the grief and frustration that someone who has lost a loved one during this pandemic and been unable to travel to see them before they died or to grieve them with others afterwards. This happened well after this incident in the game, which is my circular way of saying that I don't think there are specific extenuating circumstances that might have rendered me vulnerable to this story arc in a way someone else might not be.

Instead I think it was a story well-made. It wasn't well-told, or well-shown: the holo image I saw of the man fit the thematic conceit of Death Stranding, and the plainly written emails aren't especially memorable in themselves. This underdevelopment is typical Kojima canniness towards the broader themes he's exploring, but that set dressing needed me to act and feel my along the path he had laid out. My thesis here is games are unique in the way they can make emotions in a way no other medium can.

And in part two, I attempt to explain what I mean by the phrase a "well-made" story.