Monday, July 14, 2014

Exploration as Taught by Floid and Dewitt

"So here you stand, beloved freak
You're not alone.
Sometimes we get so tired and weak
We lose the sky beneath our feet
You're not alone."

Garbage - Beloved Freak

About a decade ago, I found a cabin on the beach in Dun Morogh. WoW fans might retort "omg u n00b therez liek mntns al arnd it!!!" Ah, but see, little old druid me turned into a seal and swam southwards from that swamp port north of it, I forget its name. And after some fifteen minutes of rugged, unscalable cliffs, I ran across my reward: a patch of beach with a little wooden shack. I use the term "reward" metaphorically, of course, since the hut was emptier than the average gamer's skull.

So, then, why did the druid cross the road?
Some time after I pulled that little stunt, I took the famous Bartle Test, which like most such quizzes is famous mostly for telling you what you already know about yourself. In my case, it brilliantly declared me an explorer.

Here, unfortunately, we run into a semantic issue because despite all this I cannot recognize myself in the implicit definition of exploration used by MMOs. Exploration is not the routine of running to every town which is already marked on your map. Nor is it the obsessive-compulsive need to criss-cross a game map until you run across a random spot on bare ground (thanks for nothing City of Heroes, may you rot in pieces.) Exploration is not mere beach-combing. Explorers are precisely opposite those who merely hit every location on a predetermined checklist for achievement unlocks.

True explorers are, to a great degree, impulsive. We wander along and something catches our eye, some geometric hint, some trace of symbolism, and we just have to know what's over that hill or at the bottom of that cave or at the top of that peak. The job of game designers is to make sure there really is something there... sometimes. Ironically, in general, the smaller the better. This activity is not about "phat lewtz" but about token recognition. I spent a quarter-hour swimming instead of farming XP because that long stretch of mountains dropping into the sea seemed too large, to obvious, too... there... to be completely empty. And lo and behold, a game designer thought as I did. That's the delicate, subtle art of creating meaning out of what would otherwise be empty space, of rewarding pattern-seeking, not pattern-following or pattern-imposing behavior.

Single-player games tend to be linear and therefore lack such opportunities. Easter eggs in general don't count. Some few open-world adventures like Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl or the Elder Scrolls games have been quite clever in rewarding you with a hidden stash, an unobstructed scenic view, a little snippet of text, something, some little glint of recognition between you and the programmer who both thought there logically should be something here, right here where the land or architecture curves just this way.

MMOs, if you hold them to their core definition as persistent worlds, hold both the greatest possibilities and greatest need for exploration, and it's not about bragging rights. Here's where the extroverted majority misinterpreted the game exploration impulse of escapists. We might sometimes get excited enough about something we found to brag about it, but to us, it's not about floating titles above our heads or unique loot. The druid crossed the road to get to the other side. More than that, exploring is a symbolic escape within escapism, allowing our online avatars to get away from the crowds for a while, from all those despicable achievers, socializers and killers. To look down at the world from airy heights, to hide within the deepest cave, to take a few moments within a sheltered little valley, to sit by a pond in untrod woods - the symbolism here is not complicated. It is at least as much an expression of personality as the petty sadism and attention-whoring of the dick-measuring masses, and it deserves a great deal more recognition than it's getting.

It's always odd to run across the mark of some game designer who, among the endless dross churned out as an industrial process, manages to sneak in some hint of creativity, subtle or grandiose, concise or diffuse, to voice a wish for better things. Exploration as a concept and practice is not random, but nominal "exploration" in any modern game, by any name - lore, deeds, badges, achievements - is geared toward the mindless masses and therefore almost always either obvious or random, so as to prevent intellect from becoming an asset. So when LotRO first challenged me to "find Floid and Dewitt" in various places, I took it as just one more mindless random timesink and ignored it... until I started running into them.

See, the explorer and his mighty steed are of loftier mind than lesser men (and horses) so the spots they seek, though frustratingly remote, are often precisely the kind of natural landmarks which draw freaks like myself. If you're the type to take clumps of trees or subtle gradations in terrain as hints, if you get the impulse to see the view from the other side of the hill or from the edge of a precipice, if you're the sort who looks for beachfront property in a landlocked zone, then you may well find Floid and Dewitt waiting for you in a few of these spots, with a mug of cocoa and a friendly snort of recognition.

"So here you stand, beloved freak
The world is at your feet
You're not alone."

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Unicorn Jelly

"The sky was no longer blue. North-eastward it was inky black, and out of the blackness shone brightly and steadily the pale white stars. Overhead it was a deep Indian red and starless, and south-eastward it grew brighter to a glowing scarlet where, cut by the horizon, lay the huge hull of the sun, red and motionless. [...] I judged the air to be more rarefied than it is now.
[...] the red beach, save for its livid green liverworts and lichens, seemed lifeless. And now it was flecked with white. A bitter cold assailed me. There were fringes of ice along the sea margin, with drifting masses further out; but the main expanse of that salt ocean, all bloody under the eternal sunset, was still unfrozen. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent."

from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

It takes little to shake us out of our comfort zone. Standing on that final shore, the time traveler was faced with the unfolding of the great tale of being beyond the empire of his birth or subhuman posthumans' class struggles, beyond "gratitude and mutual tenderness" and life itself. Science fiction has been served well by such alien landscapes twisting the ground beneath our feet, even if they don't draw a crowd quite like Weeny damsels in distress. World-building is a fascinating creative endeavor.

If you were to accidentally run across the first couple dozen strips of Unicorn Jelly you couldn't be blamed for flipping to some other form of entertainment. They're a derivative few pages about a D&D slime getting pissed on by a unicorn, thereby becoming a hybrid creature, and some vague hints of an adventuring party including a witch. The drawing is anything but artistic, the panel to panel writing is disjointed and nonsensically random with some monosyllabic Japanese thrown in and there's no plot to speak of. In other words, the whole thing started as many other excellent webcomics do (and many more others a great deal less excellent) with the impulsive venture of a creative yet inexperienced author.

Regardless of some very minor improvements (smoother lines or full sentences) it goes on like that for about sixty pages, even after Chou's appearance. Even the crystal basilisk would easily fit into derivative fantasy tropes. The first hint that the story has abandoned its D&D shackles is the shatterel storm. What's shatterel, you ask? That's the point, it's new. The world-building had begun.

From there on, it's debatable whether the initial nonsense about witches, jellies, slimes and flying broomsticks shouldn't have been abandoned altogether. Much like Bun-Bun in Sluggy Freelance, Uni (the title character) is a one-shot gag run amok, with no real place in the greater story... but then again, that's partly the point. The author has quite the chip on her shoulder about certain societal issues. Each storyline is full of homosexuals, transsexuals, species transcendence, psychopathy, utilitarian ethics and various other denials of integration and homogenization. Though he breaks up the plot more than serves it, the reader is forced to simply accept Uni the bag of piss as a meta-fictional symbol for would-be transcendent misfits. Me, I'll stick with lycanthropy.

The most concise encapsulation of Unicorn Jelly's appeal is the powers of ten map (though it's spoilerish, so put it off until after you're at least halfway through the comic archive) and the other side-features show the amazing amount of detail which went into building a new universe from the atoms up: its biology, its geometry, its time, its space, its life - and death. Though about as scientific as dilithium crystals, these lessons in paraversal science reflect captivating attempts to give alien environments internal consistency.
The sequels, Pastel Defender Heliotrope and To Save Her, expand on this out into the multiverse. Pastel starts, like the original, from another half-baked notion (though it does a better job of incorporating it) while the last series is more character-centered, tying together material from the previous two into a more satisfying conclusion.

The characters are interesting enough, though in keeping with the author's obsession with shifting identity, no one character is truly one. At any one point, they are only facets of themselves. Whether this appeals to you will depend on your favorite literary styles. Here, no character is truly the focus. Growth is the key, transcendence: characters, plot, the world itself, spiraling out into a fascinating tangle of humanity integrating itself somewhat unsuccessfully into new universes.

Read it primarily as a tale not of the traveler but of those distant, dismal final shores.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Laboring under false pretences

"Christmas is a time when people of all faiths come together to worship Jesus Christ."
- Bart Simpson

I live in the states, so I've got no choice but to listen to the herd making big boom-boom in the sky around this time of year. I do wish I wouldn't have to listen to it in games as well. I've often remarked in the past that virtual worlds' time-keeping should be entirely divorced from meatspace, but what is to me a blatantly obvious core principle of escapism seems an entirely alien concept to others.

So fine, ignoring that for a moment, can we acknowledge how ridiculous it is for online games to be launching fake fireworks on July 4th?

For one thing, pretty much everything we do in these games is louder and more colorful than fireworks. You're a cyborg elf that farts rainbows year-round. Stop acting impressed by a dozen purple pixels. We don't need symbolic re-enactments of rockets' red glare. We all have rocket-launchers!

Then of course we have the issue of ethnocentrism. Those imperfectly indoctrinated or members of cultures outside the dominant empire of any period in history have learned to be pretty blase at imperialist grandiloquence and false assumptions of universality. You smile and nod, swallow your pride and let the ugly Romans / Spanish / French / Han / Americans assume everyone celebrates their holy days. And hey, if you're lucky, it might be a day off work.

But here's a shocker for those of you unfortunate enough to have been institutionalized into the American educational system and media theater: the internet is global. Those player-characters standing next to you by the teleporter or in the orcish market square or in the spaceship hangar, those weirdoes speaking Portugese and Russian and Mandarin?

They have every right not to give a rat's ass about your fanatical vicarious martial overcompensation.

Honestly, if you really must impose the reek of meatspace into online worlds, try something with a bit more relevance. Maybe Labor Day? No, not that one, the real one.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Water Amusement

A couple of nights ago we had a big storm here. Knocked out the power. Houses are now built to be as dependent as possible on external intervention. Instead of drainage, we have sumps. Instead of gravity, we have electric pumps. No power, no pump. Storm+basement+nopump = wading pool. By the time I woke up next morning, I had a lovely pond of mold-inducing clear water waiting for me. My phone woke me up by announcing that its battery was dead. Dead outlets = dead phone. No way to get information except neighbours' gossip. By the time I figured out I needed a portable generator because electromegacorp was dragging its feet, more enterprising souls had already grabbed the few rentables from all surrounding stores. After about the fiftieth trip up and down the stairs, ferrying a gallon of water at a time, I estimated I'd have to make at least fifteen hundred such trips. I collapsed.

No need to despair, though. Other crucial services continued uninterrupted throughout our pre-electric day, like say, postal service. The friendly little fake icecream truck passed by as usual, dropping off one single letter. I went out to grab it.

It was the electric bill.