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Make Good Games for Social Change

January 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Let’s start with this.  Read that first (feel free to ignore the comments section), and then come back here.

Where to even begin?

Like anyone else, people of color, transgender people, and the whole LGBTQ+ spectrum of sexual orientation deserve to see themselves fairly and properly represented in the media they take in, including games – and they’re not.

The people discussed in the linked post, however, are not the people to address that issue.

To get this out of the way: their anger at being told they couldn’t say they were only going to employ queer, non-white, non-cisgendered people to make their project is misplaced.  It’s every bit as illegal and wrong to say that as it is to say “whites only” or “no gays”.  You’re perfectly allowed to privately organize a group of people matching whatever criteria you like and then form a company, but you cannot make gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation discrimination a criteria for employment.1  It’s not “you can’t involve the people you want,” it’s “you can’t say ‘we are going to pay as yet unspecified people to do work but will discriminate in protected categories to determine how we do so.”  But let’s set aside that they don’t understand the importance of that particular order of operations when deciding to engage in business – and make no mistake, what they’re proposing is a business, even if the ultimate product is released for free.

No, what’s really the problem here is that the people involved clearly don’t know the first goddamn thing about game design.  They have no plan.  That breakdown of costs (which varies wildly and seems to be pulled out of thin air) isn’t a plan to build a game – it’s a plan to itemize expenditures.  Those expenditures don’t have any relation to the design of the game, because there is no game design.

Your project is not valid or valuable or deserving of financial support simply because it addresses an inequality of representation.  That is a noble and worthy goal, but in and of itself it is meaningless without a good design, without a plan.  Worse than meaningless, because your completely aimless project then appears AT BEST as a black hole into which well-meaning supporters’ money will disappear, and at worst as a deliberate scam.

Forget your good intentions.  Come back when you have a detailed design document and a working proof of concept.

Come back when it’s FUN.  Then we’ll talk money.

See, this is a point that gets missed, and I really, really want to focus on it, because I think games are actually a terrific vehicle for changing social attitudes.  Video games are one of if not the largest media form today in terms of the money they bring in, and they are consumed by a wide strata of the public from young to old.  As such, games have an amazing potential to mainstream the acceptance of members of society who are underrepresented and unfairly discriminated against.  The Call of Dudebro frat boys bonding over shooting each other might not be the target here, but RPG and adventure games have a huge audience and are a perfect opportunity to introduce strong, well-portrayed characters of every ethnicity, gender, and orientation.  Their appearance in games isn’t a solution to decades or centuries of oppression, but if they appear more and more commonly as normal, accepted cast members in these games, that acceptance starts to pass on to the players.  It’s not an overnight thing, but it’s a start.

They’ve got to be GOOD games, though!

Those characters have to be well-written.  The player has to care about them, and the character has to be more than just “I am here to represent category X” – they especially have to be more than a stereotype.  I don’t think there are many black people clamoring for more “thug drug dealers” or Sambo caricatures on TV – they want well-written characters and accurate portrayals.  Increased representation doesn’t help anyone if the only representation you get is a negative stereotype.2

They also have to be fun!  Exhibit A: Bible Adventures.  Typical of the limited selection of “Christian” video games, it was a steaming pile of shit.  Nobody came around and accepted Jesus Christ as their lord and savior after encountering Bible Adventures.  Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks lost their faith as a result of that game.  The point being that a bad game drives people away – intentions, social message, positive portrayals of the characters…none of that matters if nobody is willing to play it because it’s crap.

Now, you can make the argument that the point of a project like this is not to change minds and broaden acceptance of an underrepresented group or groups, and instead is aimed solely AT an audience consisting of just those groups (or the already accepting) – that the point is to give those gamers a game where they can identify with the characters, never mind whether anyone else gives a shit.  This is, do not misunderstand me, a completely fair goal.  One more than worthy of being pursued on its own merits – not every piece of media needs to be an agent of change; sometimes all you want is something that is welcoming and safe.

Guess what?

IT STILL HAS TO BE FUN.

I summon EXHIBIT A again.  Bible Fucking Adventures.  You know what happened when some poor Christian kid unwrapped his or her presents on Christmas morning and discovered they’d gotten Bible Adventures?

That kid cried.  Because Bible Adventures was a shitty game.  Nobody wants to play shitty games.  I’m a socialist, atheist, secular humanist.  I do not want to play a game that purports to represent people like me just because it purports to represent people like me – not if it’s a shitty game.  No nerdy black kid is going to devote hours to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Big Space Adventure if that game is no fun.3  And though I have no personal experience to base it on, I’d imagine I’d be pretty sad as a non-cisgendered person if I’d given money to the people behind the Arkh Project and in return they’d made a crappy game and expected me to like it just because it featured non-cis characters.

Games are in a unique position to build social change – gamers really do develop an emotional response to them, and that connection and identification can be used to broaden horizons and break down social prejudice.  But doing so takes more than simply making games about the subjects involved, those games have to be good.  They must be well-written and fun to play.  The former because it is on the strength of the writing that players come to identify and feel empathy for the characters, and the latter because if it’s not fun, nobody will play the damn thing.  It will just be another Bible Adventures, destined to be forgotten until somebody writes a humorous internet article about how shit it is.

1: Strictly speaking, the degree to which you can get away with is going to vary by location, but for the purpose of this we’re going to generalize.

2: I realize my privilege in saying this, so let me clarify: I am not suggesting, “hey, settle for nothing unless it’s excellent!”  I’m suggesting, “demand better,” and don’t trust white, straight, cis folks in power to be on the ball.  Demand better from yourself and others like you – whether you are cis or trans, a person of color or not, gay or straight – demand better and produce better.  Everybody’s got their own levels of what’s acceptable and it’s not up to me to tell anybody what they should be, but what I am saying is if your level isn’t being met, don’t ever think you should just take what you can get.

3. This game does not exist, but HOLY SHIT IT SHOULD SOMEBODY GET ON THIS.  I would play the shit out of that game…IF IT WERE GOOD.

UPDATE: Removed a couple of slightly inflammatory “fucks” in there that weren’t really necessary and were positioned such that the target may have not been clear.  Mea culpa.

UPDATE TWO: This post on Rock, Paper, Shotgun addresses some similar issues, discussing a fan-made visual novel game about people with disabilities.  From the review, it’s clear the creators were trying to treat the subject with respect (as best they knew how), but may have ultimately failed not because of a lack of respect, but because they mired an already slow, inactive style of game in a combination of bad writing and limited options.

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Categories: General Tags: , , ,

Villains

July 11, 2011 Leave a comment

You’re doing it wrong.

That’s not actually true (necessarily), but inflammatory hyperbole supposedly motivates a reader to keep going, and this is kind of long.  I’ve had villains on my mind lately, so villains are the topic of the day.  This may get a little disjointed, please bear with me.

There’s two main schools of thought in gaming: one says that the PCs drive the story, and the other that the villain drives the story.  The latter is a more traditionalist view, while the former is advanced more typically by modern indie gaming.  Both require that antagonistic presence, but in the former case it’s an obstacle on the road to a goal, and in the latter it is the thing to be defeated – the villain is the goal, in a sense.  Let’s leave aside the merits of these competing viewpoints (and how they may overlap) for a moment and focus on that antagonism.

A Villain (note capital), for the purposes of this post, is not just the Bad Guy, not merely the antagonist in the story.  In the class Underdog Sports Team Wins the Championship story, the team they have to beat aren’t necessarily Villains.  They may just be a faceless (trait-wise) obstacle, a “them”.  A cop in a criminal story isn’t necessarily a Villain – they’re just opposition.   A Villain, instead, is a malevolence – a force inimical to the protagonists, and who must exhibit a character of their own.  Bad guys, antagonists, are a dime a dozen.  Villains are memorable.  Villains are legendary.  Villains are what the player fears.

Fear is the key.  An antagonist that the player does not fear cannot be a Villain – they’re just an obstacle, an annoyance to be swatted down.  When a player fears the antagonist, however, you’ve got an emotional connection.  A feared opponent is always a challenge, because the players are fighting themselves inside their own heads before ever facing the Villain.  The question then is: what makes the player afraid of the Villain?

The cheap way out is power.  Make the Villain nightmarish in power, wealth, etc.  The “going up against a god” kind of thing.  This, by itself, is yawnsville – it’s the blockbuster sequel mistake: “GO BIGGER!”  Generic Evil Wizard #7 isn’t a memorable villain just because he likes to cast Meteor Swarm or whatever.   Similarly, unbridled violence isn’t terribly effective, either.  Every shitty B-movie where the bad guy pointlessly kills someone to show how “bad” he is kind of proves that – there’s a reason why that sort of thing makes the Evil Overlord list (#32, for example).

A fearsome Villain is born out of motivation.  Just as with the protagonist, motivation defines a Villain in a way that doesn’t apply to lesser characters.  You can’t skimp here.  You cannot half-ass it and have a memorable Villain – you’ll just end up with a bad guy.1  “I WANT TO BE ALL-POWERFUL” is a shit motivation, and the reason why the Generic Fantasy Bad Guy is so damn generic.  That’s not a Villain – it’s barely even a character.

To my mind, there’s two ways to go with this.  For purposes of illustration, let’s use two of the finest examples from competing powerhouses – Marvel and DC.  Marvel gives us Magneto, while DC gives us the Joker.

Magneto is all about motivation, and is a perfect example of the first route: make your Villain right.  For the purpose of this discussion, let’s put aside his “heroic” stints and focus on Magneto the villain.  A concentration camp survivor, he understands better than any other character in his universe the darkness and depth of human intolerance.  He knows firsthand the ultimate endpoint of racism and nationalism.  Magneto is terrifying as a villain not simply because his mutant power is of earth-shattering potency, but because in our heart of hearts we agree with him.  Look at his counterpoint, Charles Xavier, who argues peaceful coexistence and acceptance but is shown to be wrong (to greater and lesser degrees), time and again.  Even the recent X-Men: First Class film hit on this.  For all his idealism, Charles is both wrong about humanity’s reaction to mutants and every bit as condescending.  We may not be able to agree with Magneto’s goals at times (particularly his more genocidal moods), but we intrinsically recognize that his motivation is righteous.  And an opponent who is not merely righteous in their own mind, but in ours, is truly terrifying.  They frighten us because we know the lengths to which we ourselves would go if we thought ourselves truly justified, the acts we would excuse for the hero if it was for the greater good.  The brakes are off, and we fear not only what they are capable of, but that we might be wrong.

Conversely, the Joker is about motivation as the absence of motivation in a conventional sense.  The Joker is not merely a homicidal maniac – he is not some interchangeable movie slasher.  Nor does he have a “motivation”, the way Magneto does.  The Joker does not do what he does because of Traumatic Event A or Lofty Goal B or even Lust for Power or Wealth C.  He is not even “crazy” in a sense that has meaning – insanity has causes and structures, even comprehensible wants and reactions.  None of this drives the Joker.  The Joker is, in a very important and meaningful sense, an alien.  He terrifies not because of his powers (he has none) or his specific actions, but because he does not operate in the same universe we do.  He is freed from all expectations and constraint.  He is an elemental force, entropy in human guise, desirous only of the joy of chaos.  As Alfred puts it in The Dark Knight Returns, “some men just want to watch the world burn.”  He is a seething torrent of human emotion simultaneously divorced from anything we can understand as human reasons.  We can understand a serial killer, we can understand the mass murderer, but the Joker remains an enigma.  No explanation of his true origin could ever satisfy, and no rationalization for his actions beyond “because” will ever ring true.  But he is more than a boogeyman.  We recognize his emotions, though not his reasons: we see that despite it all, somehow, we share the same species, and fear what lies inside us.

Both are fantastically effective villains, but from opposite ends of the spectrum.  Magneto is feared because he is, in a significant way, heroic, and heroes are terrifying if you’re on the other side.  The Joker is feared because he is the unknowable – the permanently alien, anathema to all we understand.  The best Villains draw effectively from one or the other of these methods.  Bringing either to the table is, frankly, a bitch and a half.  Players are notoriously resistant to fear.  However, going back to the beginning of the post, we have some aid available.

First, in a game where the players are the motive narrative force, it is easier to pull off the Magneto.  The player characters believe in something strongly enough to be pushing towards their goal independent of opposition, so now you can bring in opposition that believes something conflicting just as strongly.  The trick here is to make it a valid argument.  This has to be stronger than just “I’m the rightful king because dad was the king and I’m the firstborn” kind of stuff.  Make it count.  Pull on the the other beliefs of the player characters and show them a compelling alternative.  Doubt creates fear.  This can be even more effective if you can lead the players into going too far.  Get them to make hard, hard choices, where they have to decide for themselves how much they can justify in the name of their beliefs, and then hit them with the Villain’s motivation.  Show them someone willing to go as far as they will.  You can’t guarantee that you’ll get true fear out of them, but you can the odds are good that your Villain just got upgraded from opposition to nemesis in the players’ minds.

Second, in a Villain-driven game, it’s harder (though not impossible) to effectively do the Magneto version – you have to sort of push the players into defining their characters in opposition to the Villain, rather than designing the Villain for their characters.  Conversely, it’s easier to fit in a Joker.  Plots and disasters that drive the players into action can create expectations in the players which you can, at the right time, shatter utterly.  This kind of thing is still quite difficult – it’s a tricky balancing act between “agent of chaos” and “why the fuck did that just happen?”  The goal here is to get the players not to be asking confusedly, “what’s the Villain trying to do?” but to be instead worrying the same thing.  You want the players to fear the unknown plots of the Villain the same way they fear an unidentified but obviously-trapped door: even if they can disable the trap, they’re still panicked about what’s behind it.

 

1: Darth Vader is kind of the exception to the rule here.  Nobody would argue that he’s not an iconic and memorable Villain, but I would argue that this is a case that can only happen in film: one where the visual design of the character carries sufficient resonance as to overcome deficiency in development.  Paired with a reasonable backstory (developed more in the sequels), this elevates him to a status he never could have achieved with weaker design.  Sadly, visual design is not something we can utilize effectively in a tabletop RPG, though it plays a distinct role in video games.

Categories: General, RPGs Tags: , , ,

Level Design Nostalgia – It’s Lying To You

June 15, 2011 4 comments

It’s been a good long while since my last post, but something stuck in my craw recently, so here we go.  Let’s talk about video game level design and the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia.

There’s an image that’s been floating around the intertubes for a while now:

Look how clever and cutting a criticism this is!

On the left is the map for E1M6 of Doom, “Central Processing”.  On the left is a hyperbolic representation of the linearity and cutscene-abundance of a modern FPS.

For a lot of gamers, particularly those of the Doom generation, this seems like really trenchant criticism.  Look, it says: back in the day levels were these sprawling, free-roaming, multi-path masterpieces of clever design!  Now everything is a linear march from point A to B, stopping only to have a cutscene!  To be fair, if you were a Doom player back in the day, it’s easy to understand why you might have that impression.  But is it true?

I gave it away in the post title, of course.  No, it is not true.  That map looks nice and complicated and multi-path, but it’s a clever deception.  And the line diagram on the right looks terribly linear and boring, but it’s also a clever deception.  The first and most obvious reason is that if you took a top-down screenshot of a modern FPS level from within its own editor (which is, essentially, how the Doom map image is produced), it would look several orders of magnitude more complicated than the Doom map.  The real question is: what is the actual gameplay?  What is the flow?  Because in the end, a level design in an FPS is a path, a flow – it is the creation of a course for the player to follow from a start point to an end.  It may branch to multiple endings, it may branch but merge again later on, but it is fundamentally a decision about player movement through the level.

Let’s look at E1M6 again.

Now Embiggened

Examined in a bit more detail, we can start to notice some things.  It’s really broken into only a few discrete sections which have limited, often single-path connections to each other.  Now, unless you know which doors open in which direction, etc., you can’t really make a definitive statement as to how many paths there are.  But it is nonetheless immediately obvious that, for example, the entire upper-left wing is a discrete unit, the central area is similarly discrete, the lower left, and so on.  Given that that’s true, it means that these are places you at best go into and then backtrack out of – essentially dead ends or U-turns.

Next we have to remember that Doom’s gameplay was, aside from the shooting, simply a matter of finding a colored keycard to open a door of the same color so that you can find another colored keycard to open the next door.  This was mandatory, it was true in every level, and (with damn few exceptions) there was no way around it.  If the developers had designed the level so that you had to get the red card to get the yellow card to get the blue card to get to the exit, that was what you did.  Which means the levels, by dint of this one fact, must be linear.  Appearance of the map notwithstanding, if you had to follow a specific and breadcrumbed path to reach the exit, you’re walking a line.

With the help of a Doom wiki to know where the keys and doors are, we can even plot this:

OH LOOK IT'S A LINE

Yes, I know I didn’t follow the corridors exactly, but that’s sort of my point.  Those places where you could go down one of two staircases and the like don’t represent real path branches – they all go to the same places and it doesn’t really impact the gameplay at all.  That maze on the right?  It’s not really multiple paths – you must end up at a certain location to hit a switch, so the “maze” has no dead ends -just a series of loops that all go to the same place.  So when we map out the actual critical path of player movment, it’s “north, go right, go back left, go back right, loop through the maze, go back to the center, go north, hang left, exit.”  There are no actual branches of gamplay, no alternative routes longer than a staircase.  It’s a straight line that doubles back on itself a few times.

You’ll also see where I marked “Trap”.  This was Doom’s THING, man.  You walked into a room, the door closed behind you, and a closet opened up and a monster popped out.  Every.  Damn.  Time.  It was so ubiquitous that people referred to the technique as “monster closets” and poked fun at iD’s apparent dependence on them to generate scares.  They were predictable as hell after a while: you knew, for example, that when you found a key, picking up the key probably was going to open a monster closet.

So, if E1M6 is actually a linear path, what does it look like if we do like the creators of our original image did with their modern FPS “example” and abstract it down to just the player’s simplified movement flow:

MS Paint FTW

Wait.  Wait a second!  That’s BASICALLY THE SAME DAMN THING.  Only with monster closets instead of cutscenes.

You might say this was a long way to go to “disprove” what amounts to a bit of internet trolling.  I argue, however, that it’s important as a game designer or even as a critic (amateur or otherwise) of games to have a clear perception of what’s really happening when you play a game – when you experience a piece of level design.  And it is equally important to understand that our perceptions of what old-school games were like are often as inaccurate as all our other memories – colored by nostalgia, viewed through the vaseline-coated lens of the emotional experience of the time more than with an accurate perception.  Doom’s actually a terrific example for this, being as it is so deeply ingrained in the PC-gamer nerd psyche.  For example, you probably think of it as an FPS, but in terms of gameplay mechanics it’s probably understood just as well as a Robotron clone played from the first person.  This extends beyond video games into all forms of gaming.  D&D grognards will swear up and down that 4E has basically done away with all the role-playing elements of the game, without ever noticing that there were often never rules for the things they are complaining are missing.  They will moan bitterly that the focus on use of a map and minis has turned the game into a board game of resource management, while simultaneously A) forgetting that D&D was originally a miniatures game, and B) happily insisting on the importance of encumbrance rules and endlessly tweaking combinations of items, skills, and classes to justify some exploit.

The simple truth is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  And when you are looking at the dominant beasts in a field (FPS video games, D&D as an RPG), nostalgia is always convincing you the earlier versions were so much more creative and robust than they actually turn out to have been.

 

Categories: General Tags: , ,

Turbines to Speed

March 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Inspired by Jim and Judd, I’ve set up this blog as a place to talk “publicly” about gaming from my perspective.

A bit about where that perspective is coming from:

I am a long-time pen-and-paper gamer, an even longer-time video gamer, and soon (barring misfortune) entering the professional video game industry as a level designer.  I wrote material on a freelance basis for the most recent incarnation of PARANOIA, have a few undeveloped RPG ideas of my own floating around, and like many gamers have more games than I’ve actually played, let alone have time to play.

I love games of all kinds, have no tolerance for “indie” vs. “mainstream” arguments, and am solely devoted to the idea that games should be fun.

The rest of this blog will be an extended, one-man argument over what “fun” is and how to get there.

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