The D & the D part 3

Monday, January 19, 2009
The group I so briefly played D&D with in high school soured me on the game for quite some time. Their game wasn't the same one I had known. The packaging was the same and the mechanics identical but it was far less high fantasy and madcap adventure than mindless slaughter and ego-stroking superiority.

As frustrating as it was to have to deal with death every other encounter, there was something endearing about those characters Levi and I had run so long ago. I can still picture those later sessions, having spent all our money on potions, my poor, unwashed wizard staring at the beautiful and powerful magic items for sale in the shops, other bands of adventurers trading their loot for better gear, laughing with the shopkeeper at the goblin ear we'd brought for trade, hoping the goblin it belonged to hadn't followed us into town.

Kyle had delighted in describing our destitute nature in great detail, every smear of filth given equal time with major plot points. Through it all, Levi and I had grown more and more attached to our misfit characters. We knew we were more than underdogs in our quests, we were hopeless. But we didn't care, we loved these guys. Besides, they gave us some great stories to tell.

None of that applied with the new group. I didn't feel any more attachment to my character than a fish does for the Sahara. That group ruined D&D for me. It would be another seven years before I played D&D.

Throughout that second drought I tried several other Tabletop RPGs. My junior year of high school it was cyberpunk, which was fun but largely homogeneous; early college brought the Star Wars RPG and Levi's return to my gaming circle. It was fun while it lasted but again we couldn't seem to set up any kind of schedule for our games. In those same years I experimented with Hunter: The Reckoning, but our DM was never able to hold onto a story concept for more than a day before he forgot entirely about it.

Honestly, my moving from game to game was essentially a symptom of withdrawal. Like a smoker sucking on a pen, I rolled dice for other characters to fill that void left by D&D. I did try once to play D&D but my girlfriend at the time was what one would call a stifling, self righteous ignorant banshee. I wasn't allowed to attend the evil devil game and roll those sinful polyhedrons.

Finally, after securing a job at a local bookstore, I was invited to game with some of the folks from work. I joined their game already in progress, filling the role of any absent players at first then rolling up a Barbarian who died two sessions later, devoured by the aspect of Tiamat. I've been with that group ever since.

We play every other weekend and have run through several campaigns now. We killed Strod in less than ten rounds, I've run a rogue, a fighter, the most awesome half-orc barbarian in the world, wizards of course, a dragon shaman, a paladin, even a Bard with a squeezebox. The bard didn't last long.

I've found a happy medium with my current group. They take the game seriously enough to keep the game going, but the humour of the group breaks up the action enough to keep it from getting too monotonous. We can't get through a game without injecting a specific line from Willow which I refuse to repeat here.

We've made the jump to 4th edition and are working through the pathfinder campaign right now. Our DM managed to convert the whole thing over from 3.5, a feat I can't even fathom. I have a secret desire to branch out into other games, like Champions or D20 Modern. I've been quietly building my first campaign for almost six months now and hope to unveil it sometime this next fall. I wish I could say more about other than it's ambitious, but I'll reveal more when I can.

The key to a good D&D game is a group that meshes well. It doesn't matter if one person always plays one specific class, just so long as they commit to it. The most important thing is the group dynamic. As long as that is strong, your games will always be fun. Like any game, it's always best with friends.

The Death of Death in Videogames and the Integration of a Post-Death Mechanic

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou'art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie,'or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

-John Donne

Videogame death--which is this essay's raison d'etre--has often been exploited as the ultimate punishment for hitting that enemy, missing that jump, or taking just one too many bullets . For Mario, Master Chief, and Marcus Fenix, the real enemy is not Bowser, The Covenant, or The Locusts, the real enemy is death. Death into a pit, death onto a spike, death into a ball of fire. Death can result in a "Game Over," continue, or loading screen. Death, in other words, is merely an occasional irritant, a niggling hiccup, a momentary interruption of gameplay, where a player takes a moment to savor the impersonal punishment of not playing well enough. Our player breathes, presses a button, and tries again.

Many games nowadays attempt to curtail the use of a loading screen (more prominant than a "Game Over" or "Continue" screen nowadays) by the implementation of time-reverse mechanics into the gameplay. This mechanic sees excellent use within the platform genre, in games such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time trilogy, Jonathan Blow's Braid, but time-reversal also appears in racing games (Grid) and first-person shooters (Timeshift). If our gamer takes too long completing a task, misjudges the distance of a gap, or, in some cases, dies, a simple button-press allows for a do-over, following a slo-mo recap of the mistake in reverse. The mechanic does not eliminate death altogether, but attempts to allow our gamer a way around it, a way to postpone the Reaper's arrival.

The age of the "Game Over" screen--a phenomenon of eastern developed games--is coming to an end. With the dwindling popularity of video arcades in America and the increasing popularity of home consoles, a developer's need to include such a risk/reward system, centered on staying alive, is slowly being deconstructed. More and more games include a type of in-game death-substitute in order to bypass the traditional "Game Over" screen, the moment when arcade gamers were prompted to "Insert Coin" in order to continue playing a game.

The critically lauded and successful game from 2K Boston, Bioshock, utilizes an in-game mechanic called "Vita-chambers," where a deceased player is "respawned" without any major interruption to gameplay. The Vita-chambers come with their own lore, as well, further integrating them into game world. From the Bioshock Wiki:

"Vita Chambers are an invention by Andrew Ryan, which allows a person who has died to be 'regenerated' at any nearby Vita-Chamber. It would seem the Vita-Chambers were available to the public at one point, but were closed down maybe due to Ryan's command, or so Little Sisters could collect ADAM. Or perhaps they were going to be available to the citizens of Rapture but were never fully activated."

This integration of the death mechanic into gameplay, keeping our gamer continuously within the game world, places more emphasis on the progression and story of the game--the what happens next--as opposed to the challenging moments where the player faces onslaughts of enemy "splicers" and lumbering-but-powerful "Big Daddies"--the pure gameplay moments. Die, and all you do is respawn (a mechanic taken from various arena style first-person shooters; Quake, Unreal Tournament, etc.) at the nearest Vita-chamber, some of your health regenerated, all of the world unchanged. The de-emphasis of gameplay for narrative shows the developer's preference for this aspect of the videogame over others. In the coordination between the storytelling element and the progression of the player through the game is a continuous, uncompromising narrative vision, allowing players to become fully immersed in the world without having to restart. In film theory, the continuous form of narrative is termed the "invisible style" or "Hollywood style"; in The Art of Fiction, John Gardiner has famously called prose of this sort a "vivid and continuous dream."

Bioshock is an example of a game that attempts to bridge the obvious "game-ness" of videogames with an invisible aesthetic, a world that our gamer can enter and there remain. It does this partly with its Vita-chambers and heavy emphasis on storytelling.

More recently, game designers have attempted to do away with death altogether, taking a step away from this tradition, from the worry of dying and the need for players to develop techniques to stay alive. One example of this is found Ubisoft's new franchise reboot Prince of Persia (2008). Here, upon plummeting off a ledge, our gamer watches as his magical sidekick Elika offers her hand and pulls the player-character back up to a nearby ledge. Or if the player's character is about to fall in battle he is immediate pulled, by Elika, from beneath the chop of an enemy's sword. In Prince of Persia, the death mechanic is avoided altogether with the intrusion of a non-player character. These sorts of development choices maintain that "vivid and continuous dream," exclude death from the risk/reward schemata, and allow the narrative to be highlighted as one of the main reasons for our gamer to play.

Too Human, developed by Sillicon Knights, utilizes a similar mechanic to Bioshock. When our player's character, Baldur, dies, a Valkyrie descends from the heavens, carries him up to "Valhalla" while our gamer waits for Baldur to respawn some distance from where he died. And while the Valkyrie most certainly fits in with the Norse Mythology that Too Human draws so heavily on, the logic behind the mechanic is not as wholly integrated into the experience. Although the idea that Valkyries descend to carry norsemen off to Valhalla is an acurate one, the Norse believed that conquering death was an honor reserved to great warriors fighting for their cause--Valhalla was a place that those warriors would not wish to leave. The mechanic Sillicon Knights implements in the game contradicts the general Norse lore they're drawing so heavily on. The effect is not a "vivid continuous dream" but instead confusion on the part of our gamer.

It's yet to be seen how this mechanic will be integrated into future videogames, although we can safely say we haven't seen the last of it. (Another game that implements this type of mechanic is Fable 2--when the player-character falls in battle, s/he "heroically" lurches to his/her feet, knocking all enemies around to the ground--this fits perfectly with the "heroic" motif.) With games being viewed more and more as art, narratives will emerge that necessitate the developer's need to remove death from the equation. The only question left to ask is: "How will death be killed next?"

The D & the D part 2

Saturday, January 17, 2009
D&D is always best when played with a group of people. That said, the first time I played D&D was with Kyle, who doesn't really count, not because of some ethereal or imaginary state of existence, but because he was the Dungeon Master. Because he was running the game and not playing it, my first few sessions amounted to a lengthy and lonely single player campaign. Saying I played those sessions with other people would be like saying I play Oblivion with my good friend Xavier Box.

Eventually we managed to get my friend Levi in on our game. Levi, as you might recall, took the role of Warrior from my weary shoulders while I settled slowly into my new position as the party wizard. Here again, I start to bump up against the lingo of D&D. The party, as it's called, is normally composed of at least three (the VERY least), so Levi and I were more a dynamic duo, akin to Batman and Robin, though less ambiguously gay, which is to say not at all. Oh, and there were no spandex or hot pants either.

Our adventures, because of their unorthodox nature, were almost always doomed to failure. We were a wizard and a warrior often without any money or means to heal ourselves. This kept us from really taking the game all that seriously which in turn, lent a strange comic bent to our games. There were a few occasions where Levi and I would manage to gump our way through a dungeon, barely making skill checks and tripping over levers to secret areas. A perfect example of this was our fight with a stone Golem. Levi had been ineffectually hacking away at the blasted thing while it chased us around the room. While Levi kept it busy I ran around the room trying again and again to identify the various magical items we had found earlier. Finally, after Levi had been beaten unconscious I managed to identify a wand of stone to mud that reduced our hellish nightmare to a janitorial task.

We were more than just unprepared for our encounters, we were oblivious to the deeper mechanics of the game. We never spent time looking at ways to optimize our characters, nor did we really think about what skills or spells really fit the situation. For the most part our selected feats and abilities had one thing in common; they sounded totally awesome. We may not have known what the hell we were doing, but we sure as shit looked great attempting it.

Unfortunately, Levi wasn't always able to make our game sessions and Kyle had a knack for losing our character sheets from time to time. We had no battlemat, and so relied on Kyle's sometimes vague descriptions of the rooms we entered. I seem to recall there was dense fog almost everywhere we went, which I think was Kyle's way of keeping us from questioning the ever changing dimensions of the dungeons we fought through.

It wasn't long, maybe six months before our game sessions petered out completely. Levi and I didn't play D&D again for a long time. It wasn't because we didn't want to, we just could not find any way to get our games to conform to a set schedule. We were kids after all. Our parents schedules were our schedules and they had precious little time for rolling dice to hit make believe monsters. At least they didn't think we were some kind of cult.

Then in high school I was invited to a couple games by a friend. The people running the game were in their twenties, making them instantly cool in my puny mind. I dusted off my dice and went to the group expecting the same kind of comic mischief and complete obliteration I'd been so fond of in my first games. There would be none of that here, well at least not intentionally.

The guy who worked up this campaign set us up with god-like characters of such high level and skill that it took each of us over an hour to pick our feats. Again, I was a wizard, although instead of a wizard with holes in his sandals, a broken staff and dollar store quality spell components, I was the single gleaming mold from which all other spellcasters were made. I was the great god of spellcasters, able to destroy entire armies with a tweak of my nose.

I shouldn't really call it a campaign, it was really just a giant dungeon crawl meant to toady to the players so we'd let him run the games from then on. He allowed us ridiculous leeway in gathering our equipment and especially my spells. I had six pages of spells at my disposal, many of which I'd never even heard of. But because I didn't know any better, I jus twent with it. Hey it'll be cool to feel so powerful for once.

The game opened on a vast open plain with a looming evil fortress jutting out from it's center. Our band of demi-gods stood before the plain, gazing out over a vast army of goblins and orcs. The dungeon master had crafted this entire area and built a complex map for the interior of the castle, taking cues and bits of architecture from Gothic cathedrals and real medieval keeps. He sat there beaming over his painstakingly researched, carefully crafted dungeon while we fought through countless hordes of baddies outside. Every blow we struck killed twenty, thirty of the enemy and still they came.

It was about this time that I, floating over the battle like some deadly icon, had an idea. Looking through my spelbook I came across a spell called Dig. After consulting with the DM and the other players, it was decided that with it I could bury at least a good quarter of the orcish horde with it. "Sounds good to me," I thought and I let loose my furious diggy doom. Having cast the spell, we set about calculating the area and depth of this magic hole. As our DM checked some numbers we saw his face go pale. The god characters he'd given us in his bid for favor had backfired on him.

He looked up from his screen, a single tear running down his acned face. My dig spell had become so powerful that I had buried not only the entire army, but demolished the castle like toddler in Lego Land. All his hard work, weeks of building every corridor and trap for maximum entertainment value, and the newest player had buried it all under sixty feet of dead orcs and rubble. I was never invited back.

Coming in part 3... The second drought, college attempts, and I come home to play...

The D & the D part 1

Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Dungeons and Dragons is one of those games you still get shit for when your friends find out you play. And no, not just your non-gaming friends. I know plenty of gamers who love nothing more than to prod me about my level nine wizard. Well, I'll have them know that my wizard is totally awesome and boss and cool.

I started playing D&D when I was in elementary school. My friend Kyle, who lived up the road had the core second edition books. He and I were the only two kids in a 25 mile radius that enjoyed computers more than 4 wheelers and daddy's Skoal, so finding other party members was a little difficult. Okay, it was impossible.

Kyle would always DM, and I would always play through his scenarios. The first few we went through involved little more than a village located treacherously close to an ancient and evil keep, usually filled with nasty orcs and goblins. It was during these days that I learned to play the warrior. It was the only real choice I could make, being the sole player for the party. It was an uncomplicated class, high hit points, high damage.

Needless to say however, my warriors died. Often. Often and in horrible and nauseating ways. Dissolved in a vat of acid. cleaved in twain by a spike trap, swallowed up to my chest in mud which then turned to stone then slowly picked apart by the denizens of that foul dungeon. Luckily my characters came from a long line of bulky, stupid and alarmingly similar fighters.

When I lost my tenth warrior I decided we could not continue until we had more people to play. By then I was able to convince my friend Levi to join us occasionally (about as often as he could forge a note from his parents so he could get on my bus). Levi, being new, took the warrior mantle from me and left me free to explore my options. Kyle allowed me to keep my level (then a whopping 4th) and told me to look at the spellcaster. So I did.

Wizards, I found, while very fragile, were quite useful for support and decent ranged damage. Finally, I could sit back and let Levi take the hits...

In part 2...
Our first real game, the drought, and the high school years..

A Game is a Game is a Game.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Our great pastime is nothing new. What many people don't realize is that video games are just the latest innovation in a tradition as old as mankind. Video games are, at their core, games. Every game adheres to a simple criteria. "Half-Real" by Jesper Juul, defines a game as " a rule based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable."

That's a lot to take in at once, so let's break it down further. First, the rule based system. Every game has rules. Anyone who's ever played a game even as simple as checkers understands that there are specific rules that dictate how the game is played. Today, most video games' rules are based on the physics engine. For example; when playing Half Life, you cannot fly. If you were to fly, you would be using a cheat. To cheat is to break a set rule. You see what I'm saying?

Now let's move on. The variable and quantifiable outcome. It may sound complicated but again, it's quite simple. The outcome is what happens as a result of the player's actions within the rules of the game. The outcome can be looked at in a number of ways. Again, let's take something as simple as Checkers. Each move has an outcome. You may capture your opponent's piece, block an advance, king a piece, etc. There's your variable outcome. Now, about that quantifiable outcome. Have you ever won a game of checkers? How many pieces did you capture?

Games like Halo are no less bound by these rules. Play any online game and you understand how different each match can be. The variable and quantifiable outcome is simply a representation of how each game went. Did you win, how many kills did you earn, did you get sniped when you went out that door, and so on.

Now we can see the next part more clearly. Different outcomes are assigned different values. In chess, the speed with which you gain checkmate is far more valuable than the number of pieces you capture. In Rock Band, the number of fans your band has is more valuable than the amount of money it has made.

Needless to say, we all know about effort. If you've ever played a game late into the night or slogged through it's highest difficulty setting, you've exerted plenty of effort. if you played or play sports, you've exerted effort to influence the game. You hustled when the coach told you to, you ran around the field like a maniac. Why? Because you want to achieve a specific outcome. Largely, you want to win, most humans do. That is effort and it doesn't matter if you experienced it on the field or on the couch. It's the same damn thing.

All that effort has to come from somewhere. There has to be a reason for it. There has to be a reason you logged all those hours leveling your paladin, or read through the Art of War. You were emotionally invested in the outcome of that game. You have been emotionally invested in everything from Pictionary to Pikmin, Baseball to Bioshock. It's the very nature of games that we feel attached to the outcome. We want Gordon Freeman to defeat the combine because we've been there through it all, not just with him but as him. You want to beat your Dad at Chess because you know it'd make him proud.

Now finally, let's talk about consequences. The definition says that the consequences are optional and negotiable. What does that mean for us? Well, most simply a game's consequences are optional because the game itself is optional. You never have to play any game you don't want to. If you do decide to play you can often negotiate the terms of the game. No game is ever set in stone, they've always had variants and it's up to you, the player to decide largely what those terms are. Most video games these days allow for several different endings depending on how you played the game. A perfect example of a negotiable consequence. If you've played poker you've constantly renegotiated the consequences of the game by placing a bet.

Games are games no matter how they're packaged or where they're played. They've been a part of every culture back to Mesopotamia and they've always been changing. Today's major games may be played on a screen but that doesn't change what they are at their core. Games like Halo, Puzzle Quest, Rock Band, even Raving Rabbids have more in common with the old favorites than most will admit. It's just more proof that the games we play today are every bit as worthy and valuable as the ones our parent's played when they were young.

Games and Literature

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Recently, I've been playing Bioshock..

Let that stand for a moment and move on to the next sentence.

Recently, I read Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.

If you've experienced both of these titles, you can see where this is going.

Games have long been referencing literature. Final Fantasy comes immediately to mind--with names taken from mythology and literature, (Gilgamesh, Odin, Cerberus, the Bandersnatch, etc ad nauseum). Many games use the valuable resources of the past for inspiration or even just material.

But Bioshock is a little different. It doesn't just borrow that which is presented in Rand's works Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead--it emulates them and then explores them.

The visual aesthetic matches that of the book--American industrial revolution--but so do the thematic and character aesthetics. Look no further than your first steps into Rapture, with the sign that says "No God or Kings. Only Man." Go a little further, and the first (and most constant) of your interactions is with your guide, aptly named Atlas.

The ramifications of Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, are explored in the game. For more on Objectivism and Rand in Bioshock, Brian Crecente (man-god of Kotaku and gaming journalism in general), has an excellent feature that can be found HERE.

I fully endorse this merging of mediums. 2k Australia has done that which games are supposed to do--explore our culture and experience in the way which only video games can provide.

My challenge, 2k, is not to forget your accomplishment in Bioshock 2.