Archive for the ‘Not-So-Casual Commentary’ Category

To George R.R. Martin: How You Can Fix Your Hugo Problem

May 25, 2016

So, in a recent post at his “Not A Blog”, George R.R. Martin is lamenting how the proposed rule changes to Hugo nominations won’t actually fix the problem of the “Puppies”. And he eventually says this:

Sadly, I don’t think there is an answer here. No magic bullet is going to fix this. And I fear that the people saying, “pretty soon the assholes will get bored and go away,” are being hopelessly naive. The assholes are having far too much fun.

A year ago April, when Sasquan announced the ballot, I wrote the Hugo Awards had been broken, and might never be fixed. A lot has happened since that time, and from time to time I’ve allowed myself to think that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, that this too would pass. Now I am starting to fear that my first reaction was the correct one.

The Hugo Awards have always been an occasion for joy, for celebrating excellence and recognizing the best among us. That’s what we need to get back to. But I don’t see how.

Well, Mr. Martin — may I call you George — you had a simple way to pretty much kill this at your command … and you and the others — and especially the others — completely flubbed it. Here’s what you had to do to make this mostly if not completely go away:

All you had to do was play fair.

See, while you talk about how this was all aimed at finding the best science fiction works, your nomination system … didn’t really work that way. The nomination system, as I understand it, gets people to nominate a number — 5, I think — of works in all categories that they think are the best, and the nominations are tallied and then are turned into the ballot. But this means that unless you happen to align with the majority on all of your nominations or are voting on a strong “recommendation list”, chances are at least one of the works that you think are the best for that year isn’t going to make it on the list, and will be replaced by something else. The best case there is that it’s a work that you hadn’t read and would have put on the list if you had. Typically, however, it’ll be a work that you think is inferior to the one you nominated that it replaced. And this could apply to all of the works in that category. None of which means that the other works are necessarily bad, but just that they aren’t the ones you really thought were the best.

Now, this is what you ostensibly want, because the only reason to go with fan nominations instead of jury selections that the fans then vote on is to muster the diversity of science fiction readers and thus end up with a nomination list that reflects all of the cross-sectional interests of science fiction. You want fans to nominate so that they can nominate works that are lesser known but have more resonance in the community as a whole than they do at the upper echelons. Admittedly, this isn’t that great a way to do it because the mainstream views will dominate anyway, but it does work to catch cases where the views of mainstream fans differ from those of the biggest names in the field.

So when people were coming into the actual vote, they weren’t necessarily — and were quite often — not voting for the work that they thought was the best, but were instead voting for the work they thought was the best out of those nominated. And that was the agreement, and one that was indeed used against people who complained that the works didn’t seem to them to be all that great: this is what has been chosen, so either suck it up and vote for the best out of these, or don’t vote. Now, there was an option added where if you thought that none of them were good at all, you could vote “No Award”, but in theory this is the nuclear option and should be quite rare. The expectation is that if the nominations are done reasonably at least one of the works would be good enough to win, even if you liked other works much better than all of them.

And so, what happened when the Puppies did manage to stack the nominations in their favour, and did so deliberately? Two things:

1) Immediately there was a call to change the rules so that this couldn’t happen (despite the fact that it already could have happened for years, and less direct “slates” might have been in place).

2) People decided that voting for the work that was the best out of those wasn’t what they wanted to do, and so they “No Awarded” entire categories out of spite … only, you know, not the ones where they really did like a work.

3) There was a push for people who were nominated because of the slate to withdraw just because they were nominated that way, which was pretty much a backhanded insistence that their works really weren’t good enough to win and that those doing that thought others were better.

Now, George, to your credit you’ve talked about how bad 2) was and that there were perfectly reasonable nominations that got “No Awarded”. I think you need to talk about it louder, because all you needed to do to shut down and shut up the Puppies was, in fact, to simply play fair, and vote the works that you thought good enough for an award above “No Award”, and the ones that you didn’t think were good enough for an award below “No Award”. If you had only done that — and not insulted authors by asking them to pull themselves off the list because clearly they shouldn’t have been there and were only there because Puppies — then you would have undercut the whole raison d’etre of the Puppies and so blunted their entire campaign.

I can see what the fear might have been, though. You were worried that they weren’t really there for the reasons they said there were, but that instead they were there to win awards, and if you didn’t do something at the rules and/or social level to avoid rewarding that, they’d just keep doing that to win awards. This requires us to think about what the motives of the “Puppies” actually are, particularly the “Rabid Puppies” who are the ones you most fear/need to fear.

So, they could be doing it to get awards. The problem is that this doesn’t seem to make sense. First of all, even with the idea of “Dread Ilk”, there simply aren’t enough people who want to see Vox Day win a Hugo to provide the numbers you need to run a successful slate that then gives Vox Day the win. If you undercut the overarching political issue, most of the people responsible for making the nomination slate work would abandon the slate, or at least drift away. Even if most of them really wanted to see those authors win, once they had won a couple of times most of them would get bored and drift away. You can’t maintain a slate of that form built mainly on outrage once they pretty much got what they wanted. Additionally, this assumes that Vox Day really cares about the validation of others, which isn’t very credible since if he did, he could very easily toe the party line and embrace the Social Justice mindset that gets people on the ballot. Vox Day has, for ages now, tended to take the more controversial side of, well, almost every issue he opines on. So it’s not all that likely that he cares that much about what people think.

Okay, but then maybe you can say that Vox Day wants attention, and that’s why he picks the controversial sides, and that’s why he’s doing that here. And if you all had simply treated it as an unfortunate event and played fair … he wouldn’t have gotten the attention that he’s getting now. And then he’d have had to move on to something else if he wanted attention, and again it would have been blunted. So if it had been treated like a non-event, it would have died down if Vox Day and the others wanted attention because, well, they wouldn’t have gotten attention.

Now we have to consider the possibility — strange though it may seem — that most of the people here are doing this because for the reasons that they say they are doing this, that they feel that works are being judged more on the politics of their works and their authors than on their real merits. If you had played fair, then this argument would have been blunted; you would have proven that you vote on the basis of merit but that for whatever reason more people think that other works are better than those ones that they say are getting excluded unfairly. Instead, what happened is that you proved that works not only can but are chosen on the basis of politics, by reacting strongly to the politics of the slate. Again, George, the you here doesn’t really include you, but is a shot at what is ostensibly your side.

The problem here is exemplified by a some comments on this very post. The first exemplifies the attitude that you — and I do mean you here, George — should be opposing with all of your strength if you want this resolved, from yagathai:

I have not read Between Light and Shadow. I do not plan to. I will nevertheless vote against it. Castalia House is the propaganda organ of an odious white supremacist and obscene misogynist, and I will fight to deny it even a breath of legitimacy.

That may not be all Castalia is. It may also publish serious works of scholarship, but that’s immaterial — lay down with puppies and you get fleas. Any work published by CH is tainted.

You can call this a “political reason” if you like. I don’t. I see it as a matter of common decency.

Here, yagathai is not only willing, but is in fact proud of voting against a work that you yourself, George, think is a worthy work simply because of who published it. Additionally, yagathai considers it “common decency”, which means that they think that everyone should act that way, voting down good works because of some sort of association that they can’t even prove and have to admit might not be entirely accurate, but even then they don’t care. If you want this problem fixed, George, you have to smack down such idiotic statements, not leave them sit uncommented upon. Well, sure, if you think that most people find such a view abhorrent, you could ignore it on that basis … but that doesn’t really hold in a post where you gently chide people for pretty much doing exactly that. It exists, and you need to acknowledge and condemn it if you want this to get settled.

You also have to address the issue that some of those who post at Castalia House do so because they don’t think they can get their works published elsewhere. You definitely don’t want to react this way, as you did:

I am a huge fan of Gene Wolfe, one of the living legends of our field… and someone who is long overdue for a Hugo, by the way. A study of Gene’s work is certainly a worthwhile project.

And I have seen Marc Aramini’s posts elsewhere on the internet, where he says repeatedly that no one but Castalia House would publish such a volume. In those same posts he often says how helpful VD was an editor… but here you are, saying you were the editor. Can you clarify? Who edited BETWEEN LIGHT AND SHADOW?

I really have to wonder about Mr. Aramini’s assertion that no one but Castalia would publish a work like his. I wonder how many publishers saw the book. Where did he submit it? Did Gene’s own publishers get a look? How about the academic presses? If the book is well researched and well written — have no idea if it is or not, since I have not seen it, but let’s take your word that it is great — there should have been PLENTY of good markets for it.

It’s not unreasonable, when some says that they couldn’t get published/couldn’t get hired, to ask them politely what it was that made them think that. It’s not reasonable to do so in a dismissive manner and demand to know who “really” edited a work that you think is a good work and should have been able to get published by other people. You look here like you’re trying too hard to deny that this was the case, instead of trying to find out why they think that and whether or not they are actually right. Because if you want to fix these issues in science fiction, George, if people really think this is the case you’re going to need to fix that impression. This doesn’t mean that you have to accept that they are right, just that they think this is the case and there are reasons for that. To use a Social Justice analogy here, it doesn’t matter if you have perfectly gender neutral hiring practices if women think that they won’t get hired just for being a woman. That doesn’t mean that your hiring practices are sexist, just that women won’t even try if they think they’re just going to fail. And the same thing applies to this case.

But, see, George, you kinda miss the boat on this because you dismiss the issue that started all of this:

I don’t agree that Larry Correia “continues to be right,” either. Correia has never been right. His own nomination for the Campbell refuted him, as did Brad Torgersen’s nomination for both Campbell and Hugo. They didn’t win? No, they didn’t. Boo hoo. I’ve lost seventeen Hugos and a Campbell too, some to better stories and some to worse. I didn’t need to blame secret conspiracies of Torlings and CHORFs and third-wave feminazis. You win some, you lose some, and some years you get ignored. That’s how it goes.

Except, Corriea’s comment was that when he got the nomination, people said that he ought not win and encouraged people not to vote for his work because of his personal politics. Not the politics of the work, but instead the politics of the author. So his complaint isn’t so much that he didn’t win, but that people were insisting that he ought not win because of his personal politics. I imagine that Torgersen has experienced similar comments, either about him or about his work. To think that none of this could impact the awards is utterly naive, so naive as to come across as disingenuous.

Now, you might argue, George, that you and others on your end of the political spectrum get that, too. Which is probably even true. But can we not agree, George, that this is bad? And, if so, can you stop saying that Correia has never been right when that sort of thing seems to have clearly happened to him? Or do you deny that that happened to him? If you do, then stop bringing that up as if it is obvious and prove that.

So, in conclusion, George, here’s what you need to do to fix the problem:

1) Play fair in the Hugo awards. Stop trying to fix the problem by changing the rules and twisting the rules because you don’t like the results.

2) Take the concerns of “politics” seriously, and evaluate them honestly, and work with those who you think are or who might be reasonable to either change the impression or change the system, as required.

3) Stop dismissing the concerns of people just because they’re saying things you don’t want to hear. You don’t have to think they’re right, but at least stop thinking that they have no reason to say what they say.

George, I’ve been a long time science fiction and fantasy reader. I love your “Wild Cards” series and have all of the original ones. I’m not as fond of “A Song of Ice and Fire” books, to be honest, but I love “Wild Cards”. I’ve been looking at getting back into reading new science fiction, and right now I’d rather go back and re-read those than even bother trying to find new works that interest me. Why? Because with this political fight I can’t trust anyone’s assessment or review of a book. I can’t trust that when you or someone else says that a book is good that it really is good or whether all that means is that it panders to your personal politics. And I think that’s true of all sides in this. Science fiction has a problem that it needs to fix, George, and right now no one’s fixing it. And while I don’t need you guys, I’m also the sort of person you want to attract because, well, I can afford to buy the books. Reading is the one leisure activity that I always do, so books are a big part of my entertainment budget. You want me buying books instead of buying games, and right now I can’t do that, George.

And that’s sad.

Thoughts on “Coup d’État”, Book 4 of “The War That Came Early”

May 23, 2016

In “Coup d’État”, we deal with the implications of “The Big Switch”:


Self-Balancing Gameplay …

May 18, 2016

So, a while back (okay, a decade ago) Shamus Young wrote a post about simple self-balancing gameplay. I came across it while browsing some posts on his blog, and thought about it some more, and realized one crucial thing: it won’t work because it doesn’t get the key distinction between casual and veteran gamers.

The issue that Shamus is trying to solve here is that, especially in RPGs, the combat and gameplay mechanics are often complicated and obtuse, relying on a lot of previous knowledge or a major time investment to really grasp. But a lot of casual gamers — he uses “Grandma” as an example here — don’t have the time or interest in figuring that out. So the casual gamer chooses based on aesthetics and character, while the veteran chooses based on optimization … and then you toss them out into the same world with the same or similar enemies. How do you create that world so that both of them have fun? If you tailor the difficulty of your gameplay to the casual gamer, then the veteran will find things way too easy and be bored. But if you tailor the difficulty to the veteran player, the casual gamer will find it too hard and get stuck, get frustrated, and probably quit the game. You can introduce difficulty levels, but as Shamus points out people still don’t know what level would fit them, and there may be some psychological biases against playing on the easiest levels (not an issue for me, but it might be for some).

Shamus’ suggestion, essentially, is that in an RPG you can do this through the leveling mechanisms, which ends up meaning through grinding:

It just needs to provide a series of areas with steadily increasing challenge level, and allow the player to spend as much time in any given area as they like.

Sure, Francis will burn through the whole game in eight hours, and it will take Grandma three times as long, but each one will find the game offered the right level of challenge. Grandma will hang around each area and farm experience to the point where she is nearly eligible for government experience-farming subsidies. Her character will level up many times before she moves on. On the other hand, Francis will pass quickly through areas because he knows he can earn money, items, and XP faster in the next area. Sooner or later he will hit a point where the game naturally starts to push back, due to his low level. He will get to a point where his skill at optimization and mastery of the hotkeys cannot overcome his relative strength deficit, and he’ll have to slow down until he has a few more levels under his belt.

Everybody plays. Everybody wins. (Everybody except for the monsters, of course.) The system is elegant, intuitive, and automatic.

And … it won’t work. The reason it won’t work is that it trades time for difficulty; casual gamers are expected to simply kill things and stay in an area for a longer period of time, and so essentially to pull my TOR trick and win through massive overleveling. However, casual gamers aren’t that likely to want to spend that much time grinding in a game, for two reasons. The first is that many casual gamers — and this includes myself — are that because they have a limited time to dedicate to playing games. They have other things to do and other hobbies, and so in their limited gaming windows they always want to feel like they’re making progress. Simply adding levels so that maybe they can move on to the next area does not feel like making progress. One of the main issues I’ve always had with Persona 3 when replaying without simply loading in my high leveled character from my previous playthrough is that the grinding in the dungeons to hit the level you need to be at to take on the full moon boss is boring, and also takes quite a bit of my limited gaming time. At one point, for example — I think it was in FES — I ended up playing one evening just to level and then the next evening I could do the interesting things like advance the story and, especially, advance the Social Links. That model was tolerable. I don’t think Shamus’ would be anywhere near as tolerable.

The second reason is that in RPGs most casual gamers aren’t there for the combat, but are instead there for the story and the characters themselves. So they’re going to want to push on to the next part of the story as quickly as possible, because that’s what they care about. If the game drops a quest for them to move to the next area and continue the story, that’s what they’re going to want to do, and what they’re constantly going to have as their main goal. If the quest says that they need to gain 5 more levels to get there, they might grind it out … but they’ll be constantly consciously and explicitly reminding themselves that they’re only doing it to get to the next level so that they can advance the story.

So casual gamers aren’t likely to and are likely to be annoyed by having to do things just to build their abilities so that they can advance in the game. Ironically, the ones who are willing to do boring and repetitive tasks just to optimize their characters tend to be … the veteran gamers that have been doing that from the start. So, ironically, this system seems tailored so that the veterans will take advantage of the extra leveling, and the casual gamers won’t. This … is not what Shamus wanted.

You could help the casual gamers out by giving in-story or character reasons to do this, so for example by adding these all as quests instead of just as “kill some things”. The issue you run into is that while this might encourage casual gamers to do them and so get the max levels — so pretty much what I do in Dragon Age Inquisition, by making it a goal to clear each area before moving on to the next one — if those quests are interesting enough veterans who like plot and lore and characters will do them, too, and end up bored.

Both Persona 3: The Answer and Persona 4 (on Easy) managed to make this tolerable for me, through different methods. For The Answer, the dungeons were short enough that typically I was able to just keep running them and running until I could breeze through the dungeon without losing too many hit or mana points, and so was completely prepared to take on the final boss. So limiting it through non-“I just keep dying!” means can provide a way to ensure that veterans advance when they’re ready and casual gamers advance when they’re ready. This can still be repetitive, though, and it’s hard to find a trait to balance that. In Persona 4, on Easy — and yes, generally, with the top weapons and armour — if I simply explored every nook and cranny of the dungeon I generally had a high enough level to complete the dungeon my first time up, especially since I could generally use physical attacks only — again, best weapon — and so had plenty of SP for the boss battles, and exploring the whole dungeon wasn’t generally that boring. But this might bore veteran players.

Maybe Bioware’s “Casual” or “Story” difficulties are the way to go, with these difficulties constantly cheating in your favour. The issue here is to provide a balance between making the combat relatively painless without making it so that you don’t have to do anything. In other words, to turn it into a game where I win almost all of the battles by a narrow margin. This, however, is very difficult to do. I find that the strategic aspects of the Persona games work even on Easy — you still want to learn, generally, what you ought to do if for no other reason than to make things go faster and save SP and HP — and find that the FPS-inspired gameplay in Mass Effect works not too badly at that either because I still have to do things like take cover and shoot in order to succeed. And with those names there ought be no shame in casual gamers or people primarily interested in the story to say “I should select that one because its me”.

It’s still a tough problem, though, and one that impacts and depends on the actual gameplay far more than most people think.

Thoughts on “The Big Switch”, Book 3 of “The War That Came Early”

May 16, 2016

So, after nothing of any consequence happened in “West and East”, things finally happen in “The Big Switch”. Specifically, a big switch.


Thoughts on “West and East”, Book 2 of “The War That Came Early”

May 11, 2016

So, I’ve recently finished Book 2 of “The War That Came Early”, and my main thought on the book is this:


More Thoughts on Dragon Age Inquisition

May 9, 2016

So, after clearing up some things — and getting a cheap Blu-Ray player so that I can move my PS4 off of my main TV — I’ve decided to play Dragon Age Inquisition again. My first thoughts on the game are here, and so far my impression of it is pretty much that it’s more of the same, which makes it worse.

First, the War Table. Maybe I need to activate things more often, but the missions for your companions have dried up a bit, and I spent all of my time running around the Hinterlands — and getting killed while trying to close Rifts — while trying to get more experience. This felt a lot like an MMO and was boring me, and so I finally had enough power back and decided to just try that mission in Orlais … and then noticed the recommended level, which I was at the top of. And then the story progressed, and I have no idea if there are things I should have said to make things work differently or not. So that might open up more things when I get back to Haven, but first I want to finish the quest that started there.

Which runs into the issue with the maps. I said in my first thoughts that I get lost wandering the Hinterlands. Technically, the marks on the Quest Map — which I just really noticed — that I can follow should help with that … except that even in the wilds they can apply to differing levels, so you can run right on top of one, not find anything, and realize that, well, you’re actually right below it. This gets worse in the cities. This is a major problem for Bioware as TOR has the same issue, and so it can be hard for you to figure out where you have to go, which is massively frustrating … especially when the thing is on a cliff with only one way to get there … that you can’t find.

Also, it’s still hard to know if the reason I die when I try to close Rifts is because I’m too low-level or because I suck. It’s hard to know what order, if any, you need to do things in. I might have to scour the journal more to see if there are any hints on that.

So far, I like DA2 better. Sure, it had less exploring and less quests, but you always knew what you needed to do when, and what will advance the story and what won’t. I sometimes enjoy DA:I, but that enjoyment is rarer than it was in DA2.

Thoughts on “Hitler’s War”, Book 1 of “The War that Came Early”

May 4, 2016

Even though I couldn’t find the entire series when I was looking for books — and found “Joe Steele” — what had really caught my eye was the series “The War That Came Early” series, by Harry Turtledove. I have to admit that at least part of the appeal was that I was reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and so had an interest in WWII in general and specifically in the question of what would have happened if Chamberlain had not given in at Munich. Hitler, if I’m recalling correctly, was absolutely spoiling for a war there and only didn’t invade in force because the West kept giving him everything he asked for no matter how outrageous. He couldn’t very well break off talks and invade when every time he asked for something the answer was “Absolutely!”.

In Turtledove’s version, a single event happens that changes this: the assassination of a prominent German by the Czechs. And, in-universe, it actually is by the Czechs; Hitler didn’t actually invent that as a pretext. However, Britain and France believe that it was invented as a pretext, and thus stiffen their spines. And thus the war starts early.

So what did I think of the first book?


How I Would Have Done “The Force Awakens”

May 2, 2016

So, as promised, I’m going to post a rough, semi-thought-out idea of how I’d have done “The Force Awakens’ that is, in my opinion, much better than what we got. I’m not putting a lot of thought and polish into this, so some things won’t work, and you won’t really get full, final-movie-quality dialogue. So there will be things that won’t work and things that will work. Also, I’m going to borrow from the EU as I see fit to make things work, and indeed am going to write this to insert the elements that I want to see. You may not share my opinions on that.

So, let us begin:


Thoughts on “The Force Awakens”

April 25, 2016

So, I was out at Walmart looking for various things, and stopped by the Electronics department to look for USB drives, and saw the Blu-Ray/DVD Collectors Edition of “The Force Awakens” at what for me was a reasonable price. Now, I had heard lots about it, but hadn’t seen it, and so felt some trepidation about buying it … but I figured I’d buy it anyway, so decided, hey, why not?

Now, I’m not the ideal person to review it because I already knew pretty much all of the story before going in, so I won’t be surprised at any of the shocking plot points. On the other hand, in a way that makes me a more ideal person to review it because I can focus more on how that was presented rather than just on what’s happening. So, call it a wash, mostly.

So, what’s my overall impression of the movie? I thought it was hollow.


Elsinore and Power Gaming and Tragedy

April 22, 2016

From Feminist Frequency’s new games reviewer Carolyn Petit comes a discussion of an upcoming game called “Elsinore”. The main premise of the game is that you play as Ophelia from Hamlet, who has to work through a number of time loops of the events of the play, where you can change things by dropping hints and information and getting the other characters to change how they act or respond to them. You don’t get direct control over any other character than Ophelia, and so all you can do is influence people — and, presumably, events — to try to get different — and, also, presumably better — outcomes.

Upon reading the piece, I am convinced that the game is going to be an utter disaster.

Let’s start from the original premise, according to the originating designer, Katie Chironis:

“I was a writing major in undergrad,” she says. “I read Hamlet multiple times in high school and again in college, just breaking it down, and at the same time that I was reading all these tragedies and dissecting them, I was also starting to make games. And so it was kind of like, ‘What if we combined this concept of the power fantasy where all you do is win win win, with a tragedy where all you do is lose lose lose?’”

Well, sure, because we all know that games are all about winning and winning and winning, with no setbacks and no tragedies and no unintended negative consequences … wait, what?!?

Despite the gaming credits Chironis lists, saying this reveals a complete and utter lack of understanding of games in general and how they work. Almost all games have the players lose … a lot. Often, to the chagrin and annoyance of most players, in cutscenes. Things almost never run smoothly for the player in pretty much any game, and so they have to overcome those setbacks in order to complete the game. The main source of tension and conflict in games is always that something has gone wrong and it needs to be fixed. And many, many games drive that tension by having the player fail at their task. While that often isn’t explicitly their fault — the enemy makes a move to block something having the desired effect or the thing doesn’t work the way the player thinks it does — games even make the negative outcomes be the result of what the player was doing. For example, in Persona 3 the actions that you take in the first part of the game don’t, in fact, stop the disaster that you were trying to avert, but instead lead to it. At any rate, setbacks occur in most games to most players most of the time.

Now, Chironis could argue that most games, at the end of the day, let the player overcome these setbacks and eventually get a happy ending, which is not what happens in a straight tragedy like Hamlet. There are two main issues here. The first is that straight tragedies aren’t, in fact, uncommon in games. Many games have “Bad Endings” where things … don’t turn out well for the player. But, okay, maybe you can argue that these aren’t, in fact, the canon endings … except that a number of games, in fact, do make the bad or tragic endings canon. In Persona 3, the canonical ending is that the MC dies — or at least goes into a permanent coma — to seal away the evil that would destroy the world. In Shadow Hearts, the canonical ending — at least to that iteration — is that Alice dies. In Fatal Frame and Fatal Frame 2, the canonical endings are that Mafuyu stays in the mansion, and that Mio kills Mayu. And from what I understand, the latest X-Comm starts assuming that you didn’t stop the alien invasion in the first game. So tragic stories and tragic endings aren’t at all foreign to games in general.

The second — and far more serious — issue with this potential counter is that, well, Elsinore is going to give you the ability to change the ending, and by implication to make it much happier than it was (and maybe to create an actual happy ending). So even if this is what she was going for, she isn’t actually going to do that.

So, despite the implication that this is something new and exciting and a new take on the genre, it really isn’t anything new. Games have been doing this for a long time before Chironis came along. This strikes me as someone who takes the Sarkeesian/feminist interpretation of games as power fantasy far too seriously, so seriously that they’re assuming what games are like instead of looking at them themselves to see what they’re like. The number of games that are just “win, win, win” is, well, rather small. Even a simple shooter like “Good Robot” doesn’t let the player just win, and that barely has a story (or so I am told).

Then, we hear why Ophelia was chosen to be the protagonist here:

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia doesn’t get to do much. This is partially why Chironis felt that she was the right choice for the protagonist of Elsinore. Hamlet, she notes, is “booked every hour of the day,” while Ophelia spends most of her time offstage, freeing her up to do other things while the play goes on.

How is it that Ophelia can get away with skulking around? “Ophelia is kind of the ideal stealth character,” Chironis explains, “because nobody pays attention to her and nobody expects her to do anything. She’s so unimportant to the major events of the play, and so in some way, she’s the perfect person to be whispering in people’s ears.”

Thus, by that logic, Ophelia is better for the person who whispers in people’s ears … than the characters, who, canonically, spent all their time doing that. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example, which is why they were used in Stoppard’s take on the play. Or Polonius, who has that, literally, as his job. Or the king, who took over not through force, but through subtle manipulation. Or Queen Gertrude. Or Hamlet himself, despite his being so “overbooked”, since his means were also subtle manipulation rather than force.

The fact is that most of the characters would fit as well if not better than Ophelia. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern always come to mind for this, being very minor characters that nevertheless have direct access to both the inner circle of the king and to Hamlet, although they have been done before. Polonius could be interesting and, again, he has access to all relevant parties. Queen Gertrude would actually be interesting having to start from a point where she is already married to the usurper king and has to figure out how to reveal that and settle things without bringing down the kingdom and creating a disaster. The usurper king himself would be a very interesting take, since you could give the player the choice of his trying to preserve his own life or, taking a queue from the prayer scene, where he tries to repent and set right the things that his sin set wrong. Laertes is in at least as good a position as Ophelia, but has an issue where he has a pivotal action that, obviously, in the next loop he won’t do … or, at least, the player wouldn’t, knowing what the player knows about how it works out. Which, as it turns out, is a problem for Ophelia herself, as her madness and her death scene, presumably, won’t happen if the player has any control over it, and taking control away from the player at that point in the game probably isn’t going to go over well.

My impression is that Chironis should just be honest with herself and with the audience here, and admit that she likes Ophelia as a character and wanted to see her have a larger role in the play apart from the role she had. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’d rather see people just admit things like that than try to rationalize them as being some kind of objectively right or better choice. If I was going something like this, I’d probably go with the usurper king or with Hamlet himself because of what you can do with those set-ups, but I’m not going to say that if a work didn’t go that route they’re worse, for example, which is what’s kinda implied here.

And then we get to the most frightening part of the article, and what has most convinced that a) these people don’t understand games and players of games and b) this game is going to be an absolute trainwreck:

This, the designers hope, will work to subvert any attempts to play Elsinore as a kind of power fantasy. Chironis says, “We’ve seen a lot of frustration from players where, I think their mental model when they start playing is, ‘If I gather all this information, I can have this perfect mastery. I can play puppet master.’ But you can’t because the characters are still really ****ed up people with their own aims and ambitions that will get in the way of your best intentions.” So you might present a character with a piece of information that you expect will have a very positive result, only to see them twist it into something horrible because of their mental state, with the results being something you had no intention of bringing about.

Players may not exactly enjoy this, but the team is okay with that. Engineer Kristin Siu says, “It’s very disempowering for the player but for us, it’s pretty satisfying. It also fits in very nicely with this idea of tragedy. Tragedy is all about watching characters that you empathize with do things you don’t want them to do. You can try to present all this information to characters but they may not necessarily behave in the way that you want them to behave. And so part of experiencing the tragedy is seeing them take the information that you gave them and twist it into something terrible.”

So, let me try to summarize the attitude here: “Players are saying that the game really frustrates them. But we’re okay with that, because we think it’s just because they’re used to the power fantasy and so not having complete control frustrates them.”

Okay, let’s start from the fact that games where you don’t have complete control over the actions of those you are trying to guide are actually really common. We can start from games like Lemmings and shift into more formal god games like Populous. Even in “The Sims” you can give the Sim free will and so they won’t always do what you want them to do, which didn’t in any way hurt the popularity of that game. A lot of game players really, really like seeing emergent behaviour and how sometimes things don’t work out the way you’d expect and that little actions can have a lot bigger impact than you’d expect. So, if players are playing this game and getting frustrated by it, it’s probably not just that they are in some kind of none existent power gaming mindset. Either a) they just don’t like those sorts of games, at which point they aren’t your audience and so you need to get different play testers who do, or b) it’s something about your game that frustrates them, and so you might want to fix that before you release.

Usually when people get frustrated about what’s happening in one of these sorts of games, it almost always not because they feel disempowered or don’t feel like they are the puppet master that they expect to be or, even, that the events are unexpected. These are the things they like about those sorts of games, and why they play them in the first place. No, most often it’s one of two reasons that frustrates them:

1) You are at a point in the game where both the player and the character have some information that they could share with someone or take an action based on that would change things … and the game doesn’t let them. For example, one of the most frustrating parts of the Mass Effect 3 ending — even for me, who didn’t absolutely hate it — was that when the AI says that the cycles exists to prevent the inevitable wars between synthetics and organics, you can’t point out — if you’ve managed to do those parts of the game — that you have a) a trusted AI crew member who might even be in a romantic relationship with an organic and b) made peace between synthetics and organics, ending a war of extinction, so that now they live in harmony. The player knows it, the character knows it … but you can’t even mention it to the AI to be dismissed with a “That’s all temporary” dismissal. Given the structure of this game, you and the character are likely to know lots of things that you could see might change opinion, and if the writing doesn’t recognize all of these — and it’s actually impossible for it to — then that is going to frustrate people. If the writing doesn’t catch the more subtle cases, the player will actually feel railroaded down direct and possibly stupid paths, and so will be massively frustrated.

2) The reactions of the characters aren’t, in fact, consistent with that character. In short, they do things that are inconsistent with what the game — and, in this case, the play, since this is built around a familiar play — implies the characters would do in reaction to what you do or say. Sure, the characters have their own mental states and those mental states can be messed up, but there still has to be some consistency, especially in a game where you are aiming at consequences through manipulation. If the game doesn’t make their character traits clear enough or the consequences from your actions don’t align with those traits, the player will be frustrated that the end up with bad consequences from actions that they couldn’t have foreseen would have those consequences.

These only get exacerbated when combined with a time loop and the frustrations inherent in that mechanism. There are two main ways to end a time loop story. You can take the Tragedy Looper board game route and give a set number of loops to get the best ending possible(in that game, you need to get the “right” ending or else you lose, but I don’t expect to see that in Elsinore) or you can take the “Groundhog Day” route and give as many loops as necessary until you get to the “right” ending. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character gets massively frustrated because he doesn’t know what the “right” ending is, and so has no idea if what’s he’s doing is getting him closer to finishing the loop. If the ending state is vague and the player can’t tell if they’re getting closer to the right ending, then they will be frustrated in the same way. On the other hand, if one wrong action can mess up a loop and the loops are limited, then an unintended consequence can kill one of those limited loops, and with limited loops there are going to have to be things you learn in a previous loop so that you can use it in a later one, which will hamper their ability to get a good or proper ending, which will also be frustrating.

These things have to be carefully balanced. If your play testers are frustrated, that’s a good sign that you aren’t getting that balance. Ignoring that feedback will make the game a disaster.

And, of course, there’s another goal here, too:

hironis says, “I grew up going to Shakespeare productions with my parents and it was always an all-white cast, and back in Shakespeare’s day it would have been an all-white, all-male cast. Now I think it’s interesting to reinterpret Hamlet for a modern audience that, I hope, doesn’t want to see an all-male, all-white cast.”

So Ophelia and her brother Laertes are biracial. Additionally, Chironis explains, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are women of color. And I don’t want to go into too much detail but a lot of the characters have fluid sexuality and gender identification. People think of history as being predominantly white and male but it actually isn’t, these people have been here all along. We’re gonna talk about their stories and their experiences through the lens of Hamlet.”

What about people who don’t care if the cast is all-male and all-white, as long as the game is good?

Okay, so let’s look at this. First, the game is working with a “small actions, big changes” model, which is a very complex narrative model. Then, it adds a time loop model, which adds even more complexity, which makes it even harder to do and stay interesting. And then they want to add in telling these extra stories there as well, which also needs to be done well if you’re going to pull that off. This is certainly … ambitious, to say the least.

And that last part might actually be adding to the frustration. See, in any time loop story you are going to have to take some actions over and over again each loop in order to get things to follow the right path. If those “stories and experiences” are front and centre and not just hidden, and especially if they have an impact on the ending, then players might have to experience those stories over and over and over again as they play through the game. Even someone who is interested in these differing stories might get annoyed if they have to hear the story of a character’s unique transgender name over and over and over again.

Given all of this, this game is really looking like a trainwreck. The ambitious goals of this game would be hard to achieve even if the designers didn’t seem completely ignorant of how games actually work and unwilling to listen to their own play testers about the experience of the game. If this summary was coming from someone critical of the idea, I’d take the comments with a grain of salt … but Petit seems to be supporting this game. Thus it’s likely that the things said here are what the designers actually believe. And those words, to me, sound like a disaster waiting to happen.

Some minor notes:

– Guildenstern, in the screenshot I saw, looks like an Asian woman to me. I didn’t realize that “of colour” applied to Asians; I thought it was just a purportedly politer euphemism for “black”, not for “non-white”. If all that was meant was “non-white”, she could have just said so.

– I read a developer comment while looking for the actual looping mechanism that said that there will be same-sex relationships in the game. I’d bet that in one ending you can have Laertes and Hamlet run off together while Gertrude and Ophelia stay and run the kingdom.

– I also don’t understand why so many of the people who want to tell the stories of minorities always want to take an existing work and alter the characters instead of creating something new. Tragedy Looper, as a board game, is successful enough — and Groundhog Day was successful enough — that they ought to have figured out that they didn’t need to piggyback on Hamlet if they made a good time loop game, and there was even a recent indie and Social Justice-oriented one whose name escapes me that did well, so why bring Hamlet into it? It has to be to play off of the familiarity … but then changing the characters to tell other stories works against that. I just don’t get it.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers