Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Slow Gamers Made the List

"I never wanted to try nine to five
Ain't ever gonna be part of this machine
And never will I be seen not to dream"
Syntax - Strange Days

The more powerful and established a creator (individual or creative community) the less creative it becomes. In the same power dynamic which plays out in every aspect of human society, stability is the philosophy of the oppressors. Just as a revolutionary become leader also becomes an iron-fisted counter-revolutionary, leaders of industry, science, religion, art, the establishment wherever it may be established, begin to entrench. Control is paramount. If you control the definitions, then you need fear no argument. If you control their options, you can keep others chained in illusions of freedom and achievement. If you control the playing field, if you define the rules of competition, you need fear no upstarts.

If you define a game as consisting of the sort of gameplay which you already know, then you can exclude others which may be more creative than you from the market. Seen in this light, the hideously repetitive "kill ten rats" mission-running paradigm of gameplay which now dominates games both on and off-line grew logically out of the game industry's growing success. Though such standardization is mostly easily explained as common, run-of-the-mill laziness or stupidity, it's also born of a desperation to control customers' wishes so they can only wish for whatever you're giving them.

We all know this, whether we play video games or not. We know it because none of us can completely escape the suffocating constriction of our lives by the job market. We are all told that happiness is quantifiable in the amount of scraps of cash the rich deign to throw at us, that our worth reflects the quality of boots we lick, that getting promoted means gaining the freedom to, instead of doing what we're told, tell those below us what those above us tell us to tell. It's no surprise that wage slavery has gradually taken its place alongside slot-machine addiction in an effort to keep customers in line. Keep them busy. Keep them chasing treats. Keep them from imagining anything better.

I do believe Poole's article was less effective for shying away from MMOs. Nowhere is the destructiveness of the job paradigm more obvious than in the category with the most potential to waste and World of Warcraft, as the tipping point where a conscious choice was made between improving or controlling the genre, is the case-in-point for the game industry's shift from revolution to counter-revolution over the past two decades. But while it is the best example it is hardly the only and single-player games are more conveniently concise. Certainly the worst perpetrators of such tyrannical conceit are aware of what they're doing. Quite likely they're the ones who have to sit in some board-room listening to a communications major power-point through some pop-psychological justification for the grind.

Now of course the most pertinent question is whether standardization, simplification, monotonization actually work. Have richer companies succeeded in lowering the entire market's expectations until only their brand of rat-race sells? Have all gamers bought into the new definition of "game" as a means to accept orders and beg for dog biscuits? Games which diverge from the current paradigm pop up now and again but are they only quaint curiosities or can they hold players' attention. In other words, can actual games still sell, or only achievement-loaded, hand-holding endorphin-titration devices?

Anyone who says "the numbers don't lie" is lying. Marketplace statistics are endlessly abusable and always designed to serve the point of those creating them. Occasionally though, a bit of countervailing evidence seeps through what's otherwise a self-congratulatory display of power on the part of the wealthy. Take a recent attempt to compile ownership and usage data from Steam profiles. Predictably, getting your info from Valve's ad-riddled, megalomaniacal excuse for a distribution service yields Valve-friendly numbers, as the author of the article admits. Take for instance the conspicuous absence of most WoW-clone MMOs from the list... or WoW itself. Oh, did Blizzard, Sony and EA not want to subject themselves to Valve's overlordship? Did Time Warner politely decline?

The tone of the article itself is unfortunately gratuitously fanboy-ish in the face of Valve's products' success within Valve's own playground, but then we've likely all encountered enough reviewers sucking up to industry bigwigs to recognize the pattern. It endlessly praises the popularity of DotA2 while ignoring the fact that it's a "free"-to-play game populated by an indiscriminating, uninformed slew of third-world adolescents. DotA2 is a catchphrase and  advertising platform, not a game. You may as well show the numbers for Farmville right next to it.
There's no escaping the circle-jerk of publication as publicity. The fawning desperation to talk about the thing being talked about is the reason it's talked about, and when you spend most of your article focused only at the lowest-common-denominator top of the list, you miss out on the more interesting tidbits below. Kudos to the author for not sinking quite so low. When you look at which games hold players' attention instead of just being starstruck by fad spread, certain ones jump from obscurity into the spotlight.

The over-riding advantage of multiplayer games is competition, whether real or imagined. Nothing quite as satisfying as beating some twelve-year-old into the ground. In more practical terms, players are also much more creative than any commercially-available algorithmic system. AIs get dull when you learn they always dodge left after shooting or always retreat at exactly 37% health. For whichever reason, whether they are driven or intrigued to do so, players spend more time in multiplayer games as a rule. So though the chart of hours-per-owner spent on a product contains some of the usual suspects like online FPS games (Counterstrike, CoD) it's much more interesting to see which single-player games skip ahead in the ratings. Skyrim for instance jumps from the bottom of the "total sales" list toward the top of the "hours per player" lists.

More interestingly, two games spring into the middle of the list as though from nowhere: Europa Universalis and Mount and Blade: Warband. To his credit, the author of the article himself did make passing mention of both. Both are single-player, one by definition, the other by default. Both are small-time enterprises almost bereft of advertising, popularized by word-of-mouth more than anything else. Both feature rather dated graphics. Both should have been utter flops, if the industry's assumptions of player preferences (slot machines and rat races) were correct. So what gives?

More so than even the Elder Scrolls games, these are open-ended and relatively freeform. They do feature quests, but instead of linearly driving the player in any particular direction these are only one activity to be engaged in at will. Instead they emphasize the world itself, adventure, discovery, the drama of personal choice, personal struggle and personal ambition. They make a point of scattering some roses to smell. They are not jobs, and though I fear the Steam versions likely had plenty of "achievements" tacked on to them as per Valve's corporate policies, they were not built around the rat-race or loot drops. They are worlds in which a player can choose his path.

It seems that even though few know of such products, those who try them stick with them. Slow Games, as Poole put it, games in which the player is given little or no direction, games filled with discovery and adventure, do sell, despite their lack of investor support. I have to wonder if they wouldn't sell even better if reviewers and commentators spent more time discussing and promoting the smaller, more creative, more interesting products instead of struggling to attach their names to already over-publicized, simplistic, dumbed-down fads like DotA 2 or Counterstrike by spewing mindless catchphrases like "Either you're one of the best, or you're one of the rest..."

You mean we can't argue with success? Well, actually your own list can.

Warband and EU suggest that those who get a taste of freedom from the virtual rat-race tend to enjoy it. It is still promoted, however, in the interest of maintaining control over players' expectations. Like slot-machine loot drops, the virtual rat-race forces customers to continue playing a product... without any regard for what that product is. It protects established developers from unfavorable comparisons with more creative upstarts by controlling, redefining, limiting the playing field so that relevant qualities of their respective commodities are not brought into question. Instead, they sell identical products through ad-campaigns which smaller "artsier" developers can't afford and try to retain customers solely though gambling addiction and meaningless measures of self-worth - like say, becoming a productive member of virtual society by being told how useful and handsome and what a good boy you are by the various NPCs sending you to kill ten to the tenth rats.

Can we, you know, outgrow this trade guild exclusivity bullshit?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Tell us the one about the birdies, granpa Chuck

"There are two kinds of scientific progress: the methodical experimentation and categorization which gradually extend the boundaries of knowledge, and the revolutionary leap of genius which redefines and transcends those boundaries. Acknowledging our debt to the former, we yearn, nonetheless, for the latter."
- from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Intellectuals are not immune to idolatry and myth-making. Though the Darwinian interpretation of evolution was undeniably not only an advance within the biological sciences but a crucial stepping-stone to higher thought for a species which likes to consider itself "speshul" and apart from the rest of evolved life, this does not quite explain the fascination with Darwin above other thinkers.

No, what appeals to biologists is the romantic vision of a man of science braving the great unknown and gaining a flash of inspiration among the Pacific fauna. What appeals to so many making a life's work of pushing buttons on a thermal-cycler inside the same stuffy corporate-controlled lab is the time-honored fable of Noble Darwin and the Multivarious Finches of the South Seas.

Not saying it's altogether a bad thing.
But you do have to recognize it when you see it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Clarity Is Threatening

"He's the one who likes all our pretty songs and he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun but he don't know what it means when I say yeah"
Nirvana - In Bloom

Humans are not rational individuals. They are social mammals and their principal modes of interaction revolve not around honesty and fair-mindedness but manipulation and power struggles. Truth is detrimental to powermongering. Why would a woman state "I'd like you to declare monogamy so that I can control you through your sexual frustration and the feelings of inadequacy as a mate I intend to instill in you" when she can cuddle up to you giving a dramatic sigh and bat of her eyelashes and purr "baby, don't you love me, don't you want to get married?"

Individuals are minds, but humans think individually only to small extents and for short periods of time. We live most of our lives as social apes, trapping each other in the constantly shifting webs of opportunistic social power games, reflexively shifting allegiances to put ourselves up and those around us down. Sentient, well-informed, willing association is not conducive to control of another, so in its place we fabricate the myriad sub-rational, instinctive, emotional claims over each other: loyalty, love, friendship, respect (which always translates to fear) instead of fairness, admiration, esteem or appreciation.
What do the second set of qualifiers have that the first, more popular, do not? A certain degree of objectivity. You get an uncomfortable inkling that you should be able to state what it is you admire or esteem in another, whereas love and friendship can be used to anchor another to you and be discarded when socially convenient.

This tendency is perhaps best exemplified by jargon. If language in general is meant to convey ideas, jargon is the exact opposite. It is meant to obfuscate meanings in order to separate in-groups from out-groups, those in the know from those not. It allows us to protect ourselves form outsiders who may be more fit or deserving or apt than ourselves by excluding them from the conversation, by declaring them outsiders. There is no fundamental difference here between the average street thug glancing at you sideways because you said "of course" instead of "fo shizzle" or some leet-kiddie in an online game calling you a "carebear" or "noob" or a scientist who scoffs at your (correct) layman's interpretation of his field of study because you expressed it too directly, avoiding the technical language which would mark you as qualified to interact with those priests in white lab coats.
And of course the most damaging incarnation of obfuscating jargon is legalese, specifically designed to prevent individuals from stating their own case, institutionalizing the sinecures of lawyers of every more or less virulent strain. Ayn Rand, in between her nonsensical jabbering about angelic industrialists, noted the functional role of legal ambiguity quite clearly:

"There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt."
Ayn Rand - Atlas Shrugged

But ambiguity is more pervasive than that. Indoctrinated in love and loyalty from an early age, most humans find themselves incapable of shaking off the mentality of playing on uncertain definitions for personal gain, even when faced with very certain definitions... like a price tag.
Staying in webcomic land for a minute while on the topic of haggling, I like the author's commentary below this strip. Leftover Soup is largely about rebalancing folkways / mores and it can be quite refreshing to read Tailsteak's thoughts, but I think he's missing a crucial point here. Yes, haggling is irrational and damaging... by design! It is meant to be unfair, unpleasant and dishonest - to the other person, regardless if it's a friend or not. Friendships for most humans are not egalitarian. They are animalistic alliances of convenience to be exploited to the fullest. Friends are social props, links to new friends situated higher on the social ladder, or straw men to make oneself feel superior. Not only is haggling for favors (not necessarily literally monetary) a common element of human friendships, but so are begging and potlatching and every other aspect of social backbiting. If you know where you stand you can't take advantage of the other, so ambiguity is again crucial to leaving enough wiggle room for exploitation.

Lastly you have to wonder what happens when someone refuses to play that game, to make some concession to irrationality in order to score brownie points, in order to pull social strings. What happens when someone says the emperor has no clothes? No comment here, just listen to this clip.

I will say this though. I was admonished recently by another player in an online game that "you know Werwolfe you've gained a sort of reputation within the community of being someone who always complains - that's not good."
The issue is not whether I'm right or wrong, of course. How silly of me to even dream that. There is no truth, there is no right or wrong, just opinions.
Do they like me? Can I sell myself as their friend to get them to do me favors and pretend that I'm right? Have I molded and massaged and obfuscated my thoughts enough to lathe off any sharp points which might edge through their complacency?
Am I ambiguous enough to allow them that all-important wiggle room within which to cheat and trade favors and play their simian power-games?
It's only human...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

As Above, So Below

"It would be very surprising if there wasn't a genetic basis to the psychological predispositions which make people vulnerable to religion. 
One idea about irrationality that I and various other people have put forward is that the risks we faced in our natural state often came from evolved agents like leopards and snakes. So with a natural phenomenon like a storm, the prudent thing might have been to attribute it to an agent rather than to forces of physics. It's the proverbial rustle in the long grass: It's probably not a leopard, but if it is, you're for it. So a bias towards seeing agency rather than boring old natural forces may have been built into us."

- Richard Dawkins

Ran across this little article while looking up something else Dawkins had said, but this comment brings up an important point, and it's not about religion. I maintain that social competition is the defining and self-destructive adaptation of the human species. When discussing the environmental pressures which might have led to the human tendency to anthropomorphize seemingly random occurrences, the focus should not be on the conveniently mute leopards and snakes, but on the much uglier truth of human society.

We are our own worst enemy. If you're a caveman and a rock falls on your head, it may be accident, it may be divine wrath, but it's also quite likely to be the chief's daughter eliminating you as a social threat without risking open conflict. That rustling in the grass is quite likely your best friend waiting to gut you because she's been telling him he's not man enough for her if he doesn't turn on you.
Many events commonly passed off as amorphous, inevitable societal ills are in fact quite reasonably attributable to the competitive drive of others. When you work overtime to get only a fifth of what your fatcat boss put into his latest convertible, it's not because there just isn't enough money to spread around so we can all live comfortably. It's because he is deliberately impoverishing you to enrich himself. When your child mindlessly trend-hops demanding you buy the latest pop-idol's poster, it's not because pop idols are somehow intrinsic to intellectual development. It's because schools have been turned into advertising platforms in addition to jails. And when you get stabbed for the twenty dollars in your pocket, it's neither accident nor divine will but the inherent greed and sadism of your fellow woman.
When a storm blows over your house, it is partly the greed of the builders and real estate developers who built a shoddy plywood-and-plaster house to cut costs and maximize their profits that's to blame. Our instinct to blame a sentient entity has a very solid root. It's just misdirected. 

One great over-riding power-play has been precisely what's evident in Dawkins' wording: that we are taught to shy away from pointing out the innate viciousness, malice and treachery of the human animal. Our tendency to seek purpose in actions taken against us is rooted in our natural state, yes, but it is our natural state, not the leopard's. There are indeed sinister, destructive, unscrupulous forces at work against us but their name isn't Yahweh or Satan, it's Exxon-Mobil, Goldman Sachs and Bob your bestest bootlick bud who's angling for the same promotion as you.

This is the glue that holds human society together. We glorify willful ignorance, the sleeve hiding the dagger until it becomes useful. We fear to admit that what humanity needs is dehumanization.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Read All About the Banality

Some time ago when I finally sat down to write my little short story about the ephemerid vampire which had been knocking about my skull for a while, I ran a little late. Yet I wanted to force myself to actually finish something for once, so I kept on into the night. I knew most of what I wanted to say, had the first half mostly written, knew the ending, and hurried to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, that rushed filler turned out to be just that: filler. And from the second day onwards I've felt guilty and stupid about the weakness of the story, especially in the second half. It boils down to my repetition of "this matters." Though I knew I'd need some sort of mantra for my character to internally monologue as he rushes toward self-fulfillment, "make this matter" is so hopelessly bland and prosaic that it comes across more like an annoying tick than a ponderous build-up of purpose.

Banality can wreck any work of art despite whatever other potential it might have. Enter Emeli Sande and what could potentially have been one of the best songs of its type I've ever heard. One should be especially careful when engaged in something so formulaic as a power-ballad, as walking that edge between power and ballad implies transitioning from the universality of common speech and common experience toward uplifting, poetic, even pompous or bombastic lyrical self-indulgence. Unfortunately, Read All About It Part 3, much like my little attempt at re-hashing urban dark fantasy and vampire stories, unravels abruptly when the chorus for the second half beings to repeat.
"We're all wonderful people" is as godawful a mantra as my own "it matters" and much as with my complaint about Free Bird, such mundane blandness destroys the "ballad" half of the overall effect of the song. But while Free Bird's intent was still carried on its brilliant instrumental composition, Emeli Sande's rather unambitious emphasis on soft vocals and common wording left no such room for error. Free Bird is a flawed gem. Read All About It is cracked.

I never know how to feel about this. What should I think when big names make the same mistakes I make? Should I draw some encouragement from the notion that I may not be so far below them as I thought, or does the inevitability of such errors imply utter hopelessness?

Monday, April 14, 2014


I'd originally intended my last post on virtual verticality as the introduction to some musings on the scarcity of strange environments in computer games, but I ended up rambling about Homeworld again. So it goes.
In any case, the very condensed list of industry-approved settings for computer games (warehouses, vaguely medieval towns, prairies) reflect not only the industry's limited imagination, but its ethnocentrism. The vast majority of game designers are city-dwellers hailing from temperate climes (whether it's Vancouver, Oslo or Seoul) and their creations reflect their own bias. We're quite comfortable with the image of a glacial lake but we can't imagine our characters traversing a small cenote. We're familiar with the notion of a hill fort, but we never get to see such forts atop isolated tepuis. We're quite at home imagining our vampires bouncing around fire escapes in New York, but not across the terraces and rooftops of Marrakesh.

Exotic locales have diminished as computer games became standardized. Before Skyrim and Cyrodiil, the Elder Scrolls series made a name for itself by throwing the player into scenic Vvardenfell province, composed of alien features like muck farming, egg mines, silt striders and netch overlaid with an entire culture clash inspired by European imperialism in the far east (complete with an "East Empire Company" and opium-trading in the form of skooma.) Before Dragon Age's standardized medievalism and prayers unto the Maker came Planescape: Torment's trash warrens and D&D's alignment-based cosmology.
But these were always outliers. Games for the most part have and will adhere to the same all-purpose tropes. Vaguely medieval (or if modern, militaristic) societies, temperate lowland environments, urban industrial or castle-centered settings. Some of these elements have become so predictable that we've long ago stopped noticing how utterly nonsensical they are, as the famous crate review system demonstrated long ago. Aliens in SciFi games just as in SciFi movies are almost always little green men or orcs with lazorz.

Game designers certainly seem to have some nagging feeling of their own lack of imagination even as they pump out more and more copy-pasted warehouse and castle adventures. Occasionally they do make some half-hearted attempt to diverge from their own norms, as a condescending concession to the starved specter of creativity. And when they try, whether through reticence, lack of practice or lack of research, they always fall short.

For these examples I'm gong to do something I don't often do and praise LotRO, at least a little bit. Despite the game's many flaws, it's always benefited from inspired map/world design, and when it came to extreme environments, the designers have shown they are at least aware of what the right choices would be.. even while making the wrong ones.

Let's start with caves.
Likely the most common "alien" environment thanks to D(ungeons)&D's influence and the convenience of enclosed spaces which eliminate the need for backgrounds, caves most often look entirely too artificial. For one thing, they're always flat. Ignoring tidal caves and lava tubes, this is very unnatural, as most are formed by the flow of water. Caves are not subway tunnels. They should be uneven, uncomfortably narrow with sudden expanses of empty (or not) reservoirs. They should be jagged, meandering and uncomfortably claustrophobic. Strangely enough, the long-dead City of Heroes got all this quite right while still keeping its narrowest spelunking nightmares playable.

Another issue is the lack of cave fauna. Despite Tolkien's inspired portrayal of Gollum's troglodytic devolution, this is one feature which game designers seem reluctant to expand on, never bothering to create new creature types for underground adventures. Again it's a virtual world which provides a positive exception. While I endlessly deride and vilify LotRO's take on Moria (and in terms of cave terrain it fell flat) the Water-Works zone was filled with troglobite takes on various creature types. It wasn't much, but at least they took the time to re-skin various mobs to suggest subterranean adaptation: more reptiles, amphibians and creepy-crawlies, fewer mammals, some examples of atrophied eyes or lack of pigmentation, giant axolotls instead of regular giant salamanders... it was at least  something, damnit.

And what about deserts, oceans and polar regions?
Many game worlds make use of the exotic imagery of desert locales as a backdrop, especially when flying carpets are involved, but few dare to make use of these as playable areas. Kudos to TSW for the clutter of al-Merayah, small as it is.

To some extent, this makes sense. Barren landscapes are barren. They're dull, by themselves. Whether it's a desert of sand, of waves or of snow, it just doesn't fill the screen in the way an immersive interactive experience should. I see two main ways to make use of such environments despite this.
For one, LotRO's Forochel zone exemplifies the main requirement which gives emptiness a presence: make it BIG ! Trudging through the trackless northern wastes can make reaching a hot spring, a cave, a vilage or the edge of the taiga that much more noticeable. Players always complained about Forochel's size and all the running about they had to do but as the anecdote goes "the journey is part of the gift." A good persistent world makes you feel small.
By comparison, the problem with most games' implementation of deserts is that they're never big enough to notice. Players are never allowed to stop, look around and realize "wow... I'm in the middle of freakin nowhere" so the choice of tan instead of green for ground color doesn't amount to much. Take Planetside 2's Indar continent for instance. Though aesthetically it could easily fit the bill, the overly-rapid pacing of the game, the lack of any practical (traction, temperature) repercussions for different terrains and the fact that there's always a military base within sight range renders those lovely wasteland renders irrelevant.

Older games like Fallout made much better use of such environments, but this was seen more as an unfortunate side-effect of technological limitations in portraying "busier" environments than a real choice. If the video cards of the time couldn't render trees at more than 0.3 frames per second, you may as well choose a desert for your game's setting. Still, I must admit I miss the old experience of tromping through a couple miles of flat terrain in Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries and finally seeing my objective jutting up from of the horizon. Ridiculous, yet oddly immersive at the same time.

Games set in outer space best exemplify this issue and also that of physics.
In terms of emptiness, well... empty space is empty. In order to make it interesting, game designers always go entirely overboard, slathering that "space" with colorful nebulae, never letting you get far from a planet, condensing asteroid fields until they look like gravel driveways, etc. Unfortunately this again ignores the necessity for contrast. The emptiness of space itself makes the few objects you find that much more important. A good virtual world makes you feel small, and one of the best features of games like EVE or Homeworld was always zooming out, and out... and out... until your mighty warship shrank to a tiny figure.. and out, until it shrank to an insignificant point lost in that immensity of star-dotted night "out here in the black" as Firefly jargon put it.

An oasis in the desert, the edge of the taiga in the tundra, a port in a storm, a planet in space... it is the sand, the ice, the sea, the black, it's contrast that lends them their poignancy. Don't just tell me this chapter of the game is set at a desert oasis. Show me! Make me cross the desert before getting there. Make me feel that grit.
Another point is that a game's physics engine and its environmental effects must be adaptable enough to make you feel that alien environment. Space makes this concept the easiest to grasp, because our mind jumps to zero-g, yet most games set in space ignore physics almost entirely, with maximum speeds and ups and downs just like our monkey brain expects. However, this is not just an issue with space. Walking in snow should feel different from walking on grassy soil. An arctic chill or a scorching desert sun should have some impact on your character. The rocking of the waves should interfere with your maneuvering at sea. All these little details would go a long way toward making these otherwise "empty" environments much, much less dull in themselves, and likely make you want to reach port all the more. Contrast, again, is key.

I won't get into some of the weirder ideas for game settings. We could have pretty much anything... deep-sea volcanic vents? Entire games set in an ocean perpetually in storm? Jagged mountain ranges among which we could flit from peak to peak like condors? Exaggerated tides covering and uncovering parts of a map?
If you'd like to see creativity in action, here is a case-in-point. The short-lived Insects Infestation mod for Half-Life 2 featured a map called "Dead Cow." Yes, you fought inside the rotting carcass of a cow.

So don't even try to tell me you can't think of any better game map than a box-filled warehouse. Play Dead Cow, then we'll talk.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Adventures in the Third Dimension

There's a very odd yet demonstrably reliable observation I heard from I-forget-which source. A pen-and-paper GM remarked that despite their (sometimes frustratingly) creative approaches to breaking whatever puzzles he threw at his players, they would consistently miss or be surprised by anything situated above their characters.
Gamers never look up. It's become a catchphrase. Try it with your MMO guild. See how much vertical detail they've missed despite having run through a particular location many times over.

As one example, it took me years (and at least three characters) despite having praised the majestic facade of Thorin's Hall in LotRO over and again as a successfully memorable location and example of good virtual landscaping, to notice the gigantic bust of Thorin carved into the mountainside above the entrance.

Gamers never look up. Isn't that wild? I mean, it's interesting especially when you consider that biologically, neurologically, a human is still very much a primate, having developed in a largely arboreal setting before tramping the savannah and straightening its spine. Our much-vaunted binocular vision, our startlingly powerful natural aptitude for estimating ballistic trajectories, our instinctive relegation of linguistic markers like "high" and "low" to value judgments, all point to our residual pre-human adaptation to a vertical environment.

Yet games remain flat. Here, where our imagination should soar, where that enduring simian fascination with climbing and jumping could be given free reign, we instead find ourselves exploring "maps" which are indeed no more three-dimensional than a sheet of paper. Flight simulators aside, most genres should logically be scrambling to exploit the novelty of truly three-dimensional environments, yet self-limit to horizontal levels or maps.

Gamers never look up because they've been taught there's nothing there. If you hear a sound or voice from above you in a computer game, it's more often a sign of distance than direction. It's used as foreshadowing for an upcoming boss fight. Strangely enough, it's very, very easy to imagine vertical landscapes which would fit any FPS, RPG or strategy game: a sheer mountainside riddled with crevices and overhangs, a canyon, a maze of skyscrapers or the logical setting of a cave system. This is even if we ignore the more outlandish ideas like asteroid fields, oceans, fights between zeppelins, etc.

There have been a few outstanding examples of three-dimensional games, but for the most part they've been ignored by both gamers and game-makers alike. Homeworld should by all rights have sparked a new craze of 3D RTS games yet remained a widely-acclaimed, narrowly-played anomaly, unsuccessfully copycatted a few times then forgotten. Half-life's barnacles at least forced players to look up. One of the best examples of 3D FPS was the HL mod Natural Selection with its wall-climbing, vent-crawling and occasional huge chambers through which the bat-like Lerks hit-and-ran at blinding speeds, but due in equal parts to bad luck, bad management and low funding, it failed to live up to its potential. With Half-Life2, the mod Insects Infestation took this concept even further and was even less successful.

There's something holding computer games back from true three-dimensionality (not just figurative but literal) and it goes beyond the difficulty of control. Yes, it is true that a mouse and keyboard make a poor interface for rotating in a 3D environment, and consoles have always been ahead of PC games in terms of flight simulators and dynamic platform-jumping adventures. But the examples I mentioned above gave, if not ideal, certainly workable solutions to this problem. Natural Selection and Insects Infestation intuitively incorporated (alliiiiteration, whee) wall-climbing into pre-existing strafing movement mechanics used in any FPS. Though somewhat daunting at first, Homeworld's controls used a very intuitive object-centered command system to remove as much of the tedious scrolling and rotating as possible. Developers like Gas-Powered or Ironclad have picked up on this and incorporated into mouse-zooming to great effect... but retained two-dimensional maps for Demigod and Sins of a Solar Empire, respectively.

So why don't we have games in which we rappel down skyscrapers or bounce off the walls of canyons or fight our way up waterfalls like salmon? As far as I can tell, developers are content to leave true, practical three-dimensionality to flight simulators. Do they fear their customers' fear of such novelty in RTS or FPS games? Or do they themselves simply have so little experience with the concept, being themselves former gamers who never looked up, that they are not capable of portraying environments more alien than maps and levels, warehouses and grasslands?

edit: There has been at least one reasonably popular and very creative 3D FPS game in recent history, and that's Portal. Somehow it does not jump to mind... possibly because it so aggressively avoided FPS tropes that it cannot be taken as representative of anything but itself.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

We are all caught up / just to stay in your place

It's been a long winter, and heavier than most. A couple of months ago, while the snow remained plowed shoulder-high along the road into this housing development, I drove by a heartbreakingly ... Everyman-ish, pedestrian.
A tiny shrew was dashing along the base of the gigantic, never-ending dirty white escarpment lining the road, scampering in sheer, leg-breaking panic in search of some way back into the fields.

For what its worth, little guy, I hope you found your tunnel again and ended your short life peacefully in your nice, cozy burrow. We mice and shrews should not be trying to run the rat-race.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Jesus is my cigarette filter

Funny thing happened today on my way to the computer. Forced to comply with the new form of American compulsory bankrolling of insurance corporations, I signed up for health insurance. The process was as unbearably dull for the most part as might be expected from a smokescreen designed to distract from their disgusting profiteering off human misery, but one stage of one particular questionnaire made me chuckle.

"Do you smoke" is a fairly predictable question. Being asked how much you smoke is a logical variation. However, being asked how much you smoke outside religious use is as hilarious an example as any of the destructively facetious irrationality of political correctness. So long as you're huffin' an' puffin' in the name of the Great Spirit, he'll keep your P53 in its proper 53 !

To her credit, the bored minimum-wage functionary on the other end of the phone didn't even miss a beat when I started giggling.

P.S. I know it's April 1st and all, but honestly, I could not make this stuff up.