Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category

Character Blow-Up

July 11, 2018

So, recently, two Guild Wars 2 writers were fired over a blow-up on Twitter. While I first came across it in the comments section of two different sites — one each of left-wing and right-wing — I’m going to link to the Eurogamer article on it because it gives the most information and the links to the threads themselves. The topic of the Twitter thread that started this whole thing was about whether or not you can have memorable characters in an MMORPG or straight RPG, and how you need to write dialogue for characters in those genres. I’m going to talk about that, specifically, a little bit later in the post. However, my impression of what happened is that a Youtube content creator who happened to be a partner with ArenaNet — the company that makes Guild Wars 2 — to comment on how things are working replied to the Twitter thread with a comment that essentially said that it’s not about creating generic conversations, but is instead about making the conversations react to the character the player chooses. The writer — who happens to be a woman — then responded with a snarky comment about him telling her things she already knew, then created a separate thread basically suggesting that he only did that because he was a man and she was a woman despite her being experienced and an expert in the field, thus implying that it was sexism driving his response — specifically, mansplaining — and then responded to other comments on that topic with an even more snarky response that, again, seemed to be aimed precisely at taking exception because it was men who made the comments, and also that they were talking about something she already understood. Another employee defended her — mostly keying off of the argument that this was a personal account and so people shouldn’t reply to it for some reason — and then they were both fired.

So let me talk about that first. First, Denoir — the Youtuber — definitely had knowledge about the inner workings of games that the Price — the female writer — didn’t bother to check to see that he had. Second, he actually was someone that she kinda worked with, or at least someone who worked with her company, which she also didn’t bother to check on but did deny. Third, his comment was standard and the sort of comment that all sorts of people who talk about video games would make, including people like Shamus Young and even myself. Fourth, since she made it on a public forum and linked it back to a thread that was a discussion, it’s perfectly reasonable for people to respond to it. Fifth, just because she works in the industry doesn’t mean that she has that much more expertise than someone “rando”. After all, I personally have at least 20 years experience as a player of RPGs, and thus have quite a bit of knowledge and expertise on the experience of players playing the games. Thus, she can’t really ignore my experience just because she has 10 years experience as a writer, as I technically have more years of experience that is more directly related to player experience. Her appeal there would be nothing more than an invalid “Appeal to Authority” logical fallacy; even with her experience, she could be wrong, and even with my experience, I could be wrong, as well. Anyway, the summary is that someone replied to her Twitter thread disagreeing with her, she thought that it was something that was obvious, and replied angrily by, essentially, calling Denoir a mansplainer and thus at least implied that he was sexist, without being aware that he was officially associated with the company as well and without bothering to address his overall comment, on a forum where she could have expected public comment and feedback. I don’t think that Denoir was in the wrong here.

So, should she have been fired? Just for that, my comment would be “No”. If I was her boss, I would have said that if she is going to make comments like that she had better check to see how much experience the person she is replying to actually has, but that instead it would be far better for her to simply ignore any comments that she doesn’t think relevant, germane, or that she thinks she’s already covered or taken into consideration. There is really no cause for her to fire back multiple, snarky replies to a comment that, at its worst, is stating the obvious, even if it may not have been obvious that it was taken into account in her account. However, there might be other factors that are driving this that demanded the firing, but I can’t see what they are.

Okay, so let’s look at the debate itself. The originating Twitter thread is here, and Denoir’s reply is here. My summary of the debate is this: Price is saying that it is really hard to make the protagonists of MMORPGs, at least, memorable because the player is the one driving the character, and doing so more directly, and so you can’t really give them a set personality. I agree with this, as the main reason I couldn’t give a list of the top ten male characters like I did for female characters was because the male characters were the protagonists more often and so were more personalized, and thus weren’t really “characters” in that sense. She then goes on to talk about making them very generic, using Bella Swan as an example, and so making them what she calls a “blank space” so that the player can insert themselves into it. She then says that their lines have to be devoid of personality for the most part, because that would clash with the imagination of the player. Denoir’s response is that you don’t need to craft the conversations that way, but instead can make them reactive if you drop the idea that the conversations all have to lead to the same place (I presume meaning “response” in this case).

So let’s look at this in more detail. The first thing to note is that this is, well, a common question about RPGs in general, and not just MMORPGs (which Denoir points out). And it is interesting to note that, in general, this is a particular issue for Western-style RPGs, which have always been about character customization, which then leads to players being more attached to a specific character and so feeling that they should be able to act as they think that character would act. JRPGs, on the other hand, tend not to have as much character customization, and so have protagonists that have set personalities. There are some exceptions to this, though, where the protagonist doesn’t have much of a personality and the player can give some small set of responses to shape their personality. Persona 3 — and probably Persona 4 — are good examples of this, as the MCs themselves don’t seem to have a set personality and you can generally give snarky or serious responses to most situations, but in general those responses don’t have much impact on how things work out except for maybe the next response from the NPC, and so can be unsatisfying. This is one of the reasons why I prefer the female protagonist in P3P when I get the chance to play it, because she does seem to actually have a personality.

Now, of course, MMORPGs can’t really work the JRPG way, because it would be ridiculous to have an entire party of players who are all the exact same character. So everyone has to be different characters, and that leads to character customization. Given that starting point, the game is definitely going to move away from a defined character and more into a player-defined character. So, then, how is the game going to do that? Is it going to make every response simply generic in tone, or is it going to be more player-responsive?

The thing is that both Western RPGs and MMORPGs have actually gone for the “player-responsive” option. Bioware is the best example of that approach in both genres. The player gets to choose the options that their character says, and the dialogue is then shifted in tone to match what they were trying to say. The Witcher games, from what I’ve seen, do something similar, and yet actually manage to define a character despite the player having great input into what they do (and, as open-world games, are similar enough to MMORPGs so that the comparison works). And if you are going player-responsive, you don’t actually need to make the actual dialogue generic because you know what sort of personality the player is going for by what response they selected, and so can write the dialogue to reflect that. In fact, if you made it more generic it would hurt the dialogue, because it would feel like the dialogue isn’t actually taking your response into account.

Okay, but there are always going to be some cases where the player can’t choose what they say, such as with greetings and goodbyes and the like. Those have to be generic, right? Well, I’m not sure about that. If we just look at the Mass Effect games or The Old Republic, we can see that the use of a morality meter can, in fact, solve that problem, too. If the character over time is trending Dark Side or Renegade, you can make their initial lines more aggressive or gruff, while if they are going more Light Side or Paragon you can make them more kind and friendly. And you can even shift NPC reactions according to that reputation: if the character is more Dark Side or Renegade, the NPC can be more intimidated, frightened or disapproving depending on their own personal viewpoint, whereas if the character is more Light Side or Paragon you can have them do the opposite. If the character is Dark Side or Renegade, the NPCs can try to appeal to their self-interest, while if the character is Light Side or Paragon they can appeal to their desire to help others. Sure, all of this means recording more voice lines, but not overwhelmingly so, since the states are limited and some situations won’t need any different dialogue.

So it looks like a more player-responsive approach rather than a bland and generic one is doable, even for MMORPGs. Does Price realize this? Does she realize this and have a reason why it can’t be done as easily as I think it can? I have no idea, because she didn’t bother to actually respond to what Denoir said or find out what he was talking about, which is just another example of how Social Justice concerns can hurt game design and the discussion thereof.

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Accomplished …

July 4, 2018

So, I think the best way to describe the mode I’m in right now is that my main push is to “accomplish” things. In short, to get the things done or do the things that I’ve wanted to do for ages and so now I’m deliberately planning for that, with my revamped reading list, my list of video games, and even my list of dvds to watch. I’m not merely trying to finish things that I’ve been wanting to finish — which is what I did before — but instead have been listing all of the things that I want to do, even if that’s to re-read, re-watch, or replay something that I’ve been looking to experience again for a long time. That’s even what drove my trying to slot hour long shows into my gaming time, and now to carve out an hour or so out of my evenings to watch Dynasty there, just so that I have a chance to watch it and get it done.

The problem is that, well, these sorts of things are really supposed to be in my leisure time, and sometimes doing that isn’t all that much fun. Or, rather, it’s not as much fun as the many, many other things that I could do in that time.

For example, right now I’m reading the abridged version of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. The book is, well, not terrible, but not terribly fun. But I’m soldering through it because I’ve owned it for years and never really go all that far in it, and I want to finally finish it and put it behind me. But I can look at the stack of books to follow it, and know that at least the next two are going to be far more interesting than it is right now, and so can’t help but think that there are much better books that I could be reading right now. This is not helped by the fact that the previous two books that were on the list were not as good as I remembered. Oh, and I also went through my collection of books and gathered six boxes of fiction books that I want to read at some point once I get off this non-fiction run, which doesn’t even include the old favourites like the X-Wing books and the Wing Commander books that I will indeed read likely at some point this year. So every time I pick up that book, I can’t help but be reminded of all of the other books I have available that I could be reading instead. This does not make me more favourably inclined towards that book [grin].

The same thing can be said for video games right now. I’m playing Persona right now, which is a game that I really wanted to finish at some point, and is one of the games that I was annoyed over losing access to when the battery on my PSP died and I was having a hard time finding a replacement. But I don’t like Persona, as a game, anywhere near as much as the other Persona games, which are right now sitting at the end of my current queue. I also recently went through my other games and, again, found a long list of games that I want to play at some point. So, again, every time I sit down to play it I can’t help but be reminded of all of the other games I could be playing instead.

For both of them, the only thing that’s keeping me going with them is the fact that they’re on the top of the list and so are in a great position for me to actually finish them, and I really want to finish them. I’m also not likely to get anything new any time soon to distract me from them. So I’m not going to get any better chance to finish them than I have right now. So, I’m hoping that that sense of accomplishment at the end will outweigh the mild annoyance I’m experiencing right now.

Amazingly, DVDs don’t have this issue. I’m enjoying He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, even if it’s been a bit displaced by Dynasty, which I’m also enjoying. Knight Rider has been pushed aside for now, but that’s mostly because I don’t play Persona as long as I had thought I would and since my play was to watch an entire disk while playing and since one disk is closer to 4 hours than to 3 it doesn’t fit in that time slot anymore. Moreover, there’s always baseball and now soccer to watch while playing games so it doesn’t even support that as well as it did originally. But there is no doubt in my mind that I’ll find the time to watch it at some point when I finish Dynasty, even if I watch something else first.

Hopefully, I can slog through these to get to something more fun. The last thing I want is to put this much effort in and end up bailing on them at the end anyway.

First Thoughts on Persona …

June 20, 2018

Okay, I already started playing this once already, but I’m replaying it now over four years later and so figure it would be good to talk about it again, especially since I can think about it in the context of general Persona-style games and see how it holds up. So, what do I think of it?

There are a number of things that struck me as being pretty much the same as the modern games. Particularly, the music. The battle music and even the dungeon music are tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in the modern games despite the fact that Persona came out in 1996. And the style still works, both in that game and in the modern games, and it provides some nice continuity between the games. Just listening to the music makes you feel that yes, you’re playing a Persona game.

However, as I noted four years ago, I really hate the dungeons. It isn’t always clear where you’re supposed to go, and the spell card system and negotiation isn’t all that obvious, and that’s the only way to get new Persona. Unlike four years ago, I actually managed to succeed at it once — I think Nanjo bribed them into it — but the issue is that you have multiple characters and multiple actions each character can take and it isn’t obvious which combinations work. I think that you need to max out their enthusiasm to get them as a Persona, but I’m still not sure. Plus, I think that the same action might not have the same result later in the conversation for whatever reason, since I think that happened to me once. This is not a good system for someone who is going to play it for 3 hours Saturday and Sunday afternoons and come back to it next weekend. This is also not a good system if you’re worried about losing XP in order to get a new Persona. This, however, also has the issue that you can max out your starting Persona and then need new Persona, but might not have the dungeons really available to get them or be able to create new ones. I’m really, really worried that in my next dungeon they’ll expect me to simply have better Persona and I won’t be able to get to the Velvet Room to merge new ones, even if I manage to learn to do the negotiation properly. I might have to return to SEBEC, if I can, to fix that. But then grinding that way would be boring as well.

It doesn’t help that the combat is less interesting as well, because targeting weaknesses doesn’t give you as much of a benefit as the later games do. There have been a number of cases where using another ability actually kills the enemies faster than using the ability they are weak to does. So it ends up being rinse-and-repeat with your more powerful abilities … until you hit a group that mops the floor with you, when you haven’t saved and now are panicked that your level is too low and you won’t be able to finish the game.

This game doesn’t do the explicit S-links of later Persona games and its compatriots like Blue Reflection, so it isn’t entirely fair to compare them. Party members join and leave as per the plot and while you can make choices in reaction to things they’ve talked about I’m not sure what impact that might have. The game talks about you choosing your path and so these things possibly mattering, but I’m not sure if they do yet or not. That being said, compared to the games roughly in the same genre as the Persona games, Persona still seems to have a pretty good story. Sure, I already know it from the Persona 4tw series, but there are still some interesting moments in it. I think the story and story presentation has improved in the later Persona games, but it still holds up and is interesting here. I just wish I didn’t have to spend so much time wandering the dungeons to get to it.

I’m really, really trying to finish the game off this time and it’s the top game on my list, so it’s pretty likely that the only thing that will get me to stop playing it is getting stuck somewhere in a dungeon. So you can see why that’s concerning me [grin]. Still, I estimate that it will take me at least another month to finish it. We’ll see if I can take it for that long.

Lists …

June 1, 2018

So, I’ve been recently redoing my schedule to try to fit more things into it. I’ve also been trying to plan out things so that, eventually, I can talk about them on the blog. And I’ve started to get onto a kick of either finishing things or, at least, trying to make sure that I get things finished that I’ve wanted to get finished for quite some time. Long-time readers of the blog will remember the various pages that I made to list these things out, and so I’ve decided to update those lists with an organized set of things that I want to do. This will help me keep track of what I want to do next — so no hemming and hawing over what I’m going to do next when I finish something –, give the people reading the blog an idea of what I’m going to talk about at some point, and in some sense have this out in public which then gives me some incentive to actually finish it.

So, first, let’s talk about books. I’ve been on a non-fiction kick lately, reading through a ton of non-fiction books and, in particular, a number of Pierre Berton books. I plan on commenting on them at some point when I get a chance — although the stack is getting larger and larger — but for now I’ve added a bunch of historical books to the list, which tracks non-fiction books. I think there are three books there that I haven’t read — “History’s Greatest Battles”, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and “Guns, Germs and Steel” — but I’ve been wanting to re-read “The Holy Kingdom” and “The Last Knight” for a while and I re-read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” pretty regularly, and “The Storm of War” fits nicely into the WWII mindset. After that, I have to catch up on my philosophical reading, but I haven’t made that list yet because these books will take me a few months to read — non-fiction takes longer to read than fiction — and after that I’ll have to see if I’m ready to pick up more non-fiction or if I want to read some fiction at that point.

Next are TV shows. I only have time to watch half hour long shows in the evenings, which is why I’ve been commenting on cartoons a lot right now (also why I did comedies like Wings, Cheers and Frasier). So I’ve listed the last set of cartoons for now: “The Real Ghostbusters”, “He-Man” (all of the series), and “She-Ra”. After that, it’s “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, which I’ve watched but never talked about. After that … I don’t know.

I’ve also wanted to watch or re-watch some hour long shows, and I’ve carved out some time to watch them … while playing games on the weekend, which gives me about two disks a week. Right now, “Knight Rider” and “Airwolf” are going in that slot, and when they’re finished I don’t know what I’ll do yet. But at that pace it will take me months to get there, so I have time.

For both of these, once I finish off the current lists I might well go back and re-watch things that I just want to watch but either have already commented on or don’t want to comment on, so I may not use the next things to generate content for the blog. But, for now, I will comment in some way on all of these shows.

And speaking of video games, I’ve created a new list for my planned video games. Right now, it’s all of the Persona games except for Persona 5. I have a lot of candidates to play after that — including Persona 5 — but at six hours a week I estimate that just playing those four will take me until about Christmas. Let’s see how I feel at that point.

So, that’s it so far. There may be other lists coming if I think them useful, but these are the ones that I already had and did find useful at some point, so I figured it made sense to use them. You can watch the lists to see what gets added, what gets removed, and what gets completed.

Final Thoughts on My Persona 3 Replay

May 30, 2018

So, I finished my replay of Persona 3 FES, taking about 50 hours to finish it.

I’m still amazed by how good that game actually is. Yes, the combat and even the S-links can drag at times and be boring, especially when you can only play for a few hours. It took me well over two hours just to finish the last month before the final battle, and all I was really doing there was finishing S-links and trying desperately to get Mitsuru’s finished before the end of the game (which I did manage). That’s a bit long considering that I wasn’t doing much and wasn’t even running dungeons.

But the gameplay is still entertaining. The story is still great. The characters are still interesting. The backstory works. The S-links work, and are tightly tied into the ending, and FES adds the follow-ups at the end of the game that really bring them home. The parts that drag fade into the background of the satisfying experience you get at the end of the game when everything comes together. I’ve put over 250 hours into Persona 3 FES — which doesn’t count the hours I’ve put into plain Persona 3 and P3P — and it’s still worth replaying.

How come no other game in this genre has been able to do that?

Anyway, after this I’m probably going to go back to the beginning and play Persona, since my PSP is now repaired.

Gaming Alt-History …

May 23, 2018

So, I recently loaded up Hearts of Iron 2 to play around with for a bit. I have it running, I think, on a very slow time progressing and I started as Canada in 1936, and left it running for about three hours or so, so … I’m still in 1936. The reason I bought this from GOG is because I had originally bought Hearts of Iron a long time ago — I’m pretty sure I got that one from GOG as well, but am too lazy to check right now — and what it promised appealed to me: play as pretty much any country in the world during WWII and see how things turn out, whether it turns out differently or turns out the same. In short, it promised to be a user-shapeable alternate WWII. How could I resist?

The thing is, though, building an AI for more political/diplomatic situations is hard in and of itself, but building one for a alternate history game is even harder. The ideal alternate history game starting from a set point in time without a deviation, and where the deviations only come from player interactions, is one where if the player does everything the way it happened in history — or else doesn’t play as a country that would have a significant impact — then history will proceed pretty much exactly as it did, but the player interactions will be responded to in a sensible manner given the historical personalities of the time. And the options are supposed to be pretty wide ranging. So, for example, what would have happened if Poland hadn’t bucked at allowing the Soviets to cross their territory in response to an attack by Hitler? If that agreement had been made, it would seem awfully convenient if Hitler and Stalin had made their pact anyway, so that might not have happened. But then what would have happened? Would Hitler have been deterred from attacking Poland? Would he have done it anyway? If he did that, would Stalin have done what Poland feared and used that as an excuse to occupy all of Poland? How do you determine what makes sense in that case? And that’s only one relatively minor action you can take. What if the United States was more aggressive against Hitler? Or less aggressive and entered the war later, or not at all? What if France hadn’t allowed the move into the disputed territories? There are so many things here and so many combinations that it’s pretty much impossible to react to all of them.

Games that either deviate on their own early or are set in an entirely alternative universe can get away with creating leaders and nations with personality types and then letting them loose on the situations, but then they might act completely out of character when it comes to what happened in actual history. A game can also seek to short circuit the “historically accurate” expectation by adding randomness to things and events so that things don’t always work out the same way, but this impedes the alt-history feel of the game. And the alt-history part is what’s really appealing about, at least, politics and economics focused real history games. I, at least, don’t buy those games for history to be completely different or exactly the same, but instead for them to be reactive to what I do.

I don’t know if Hearts of Iron is really good at this, because I haven’t played either game long enough to really get a feel for that. I just know that it’s awfully hard, and any game that can do it well is worth playing. And I wish I knew more games like that to try, in various time periods.

More Thoughts on the Persona 3 Replay …

May 16, 2018

As I continue to replay Persona 3 — specifically, FES on the PS2 — I have to admit something: Persona 3 can at times, and maybe even often, drag, even in the S-link portions (as opposed to the dungeons).

Of course, all of the Persona games from Persona 3 onwards can drag in the real world portions. This usually happens at the end, when you’ve done most of the S-links that you really want to do — unless you’re really interested in the ones that open late in the game, like Mitsuru or Naoto –, maxed out your stats, and done about as much of the activities as you really want to do. You have all the equipment and money you want, and are as prepared as you’re going to be for the new dungeons and, particularly, the final dungeon. For the most part, you’ve either done everything you want to do or have given up on getting those things done this playthrough and are now just slogging through the days until you can proceed with the final dungeon and finish this 40 – 80 hour run.

But in Persona 3, I was getting this about half-way through.

A big part of this is because you’re supposed to be splitting your evenings between doing the dungeons, doing the S-links, and walking the dog. So your evenings should be packed as you train to get to the right levels and thus to be able to finish the dungeon before the full moon and to be able to take down the full moon bosses. But I don’t care for the dungeons, and my PC is level 99, maxed out completely, and he and all of the party have the best weapons and armour available. So I generally take about a day or two or at most three out of the 28 to clear the dungeons and Elizabeth’s dungeon requests. That leaves me well over 20 days — if it’s not interrupted by events — to do everything else. Since there are, as far as I can tell, only two evening S-links, I had them both done well before the midpoint of the game. This meant that my evenings were, essentially, going back to the dorm, talking to everyone, seeing if the dog wanted to go for a walk — after it joined the team — and then going back to my room to sleep for the night, because I didn’t need to study. Oh, after declining a number of requests to hang out on Sunday because I reserved that for the dateable NPCs.

This got repetitive.

To its credit, Persona 3 is actually pretty good at breaking this up, with the Yakushima event and the school trip and other events, like investigations. To its detriment, it also does the exam thing, where your school S-links disappear to study for a week or so before the exams start. Since those are the most interesting S-links — including all of the dateable S-links — this can frustrate you, especially if you really wanted to advance one of those S-links.

However, the game is still interesting. The plot works well, and once you get to the full moon bosses the plot advances and makes you forget the drudgery of the previous few weeks. I’m just past the fake ending, into November, and so should finish it in the next few weeks.

Games Examining Issues

May 11, 2018

So, the last video from Extra Creditz that I’m going to look at in this two week span is this one about the need for “B” games to discuss issues, using Wolfenstein: The New Colossus as an example of that. Their main comparison is that the AAA game “Call of Duty” has finally in its latest incarnation actually shown a concentration camp, and has never really explored Nazism, fascism, or any issue like that despite spending a number of incarnations in WWII, while the “B” game “The New Colossus” explores this in a completely in-your-face manner, and that’s not only what games need to do, but what we as people need right now.

The problem is that it’s unclear whether “The New Colossus” ever explores the topics at all. I haven’t played the game, but I have read Shamus Young’s series on it, and he fills in some of the details around those explorations. For example:

After the Siege, BJ and Grace have a conversation that makes no sense. BJ talks about how they want to liberate America. Grace argues that white America is a lost cause because they’ve already settled into Nazi rule. Then BJ says some platitudes about freedom and suddenly Grace starts agreeing with him.

This is wrong twice. One, what was she fighting for if she already thought this was a lost cause? I thought we were teaming up with her because mumble mumble something about revolution. But now she’s not even aligned with our cause? What was her plan then?

Secondly, BJ never says anything to convince her. She spells out reasons why the citizens of the US are a lost cause, and BJ doesn’t say anything to counter this. But she changes her mind anyway because there’s a musical swell while he makes his dumb arguments and that makes this feel inspirational.

And:

We learn that the Nazis are letting the KKK run the south, and during our walk downtown we see KKK guys casually chatting with Nazi stormtroopers.

This is interesting because the war ended 14 years ago. At this point in history, we would have the first generation of adults who had little or no meaningful memories of the old USA. The men signing up for military duty now were raised in Nazi America. They’ve spent their entire lives attending Nazi public schools, watching Nazi television, and reading Nazi books. They would all speak German as a second language, and for people working with the Nazis on a daily basis it might gradually become their primary language.

Certainly there would be a few holdouts, keeping the old ideals alive and hiding the occasional book from the censors, but for the coming generation this will be the only world they’ve ever known.

And if you think about it, this would suggest that most of the faceless troopers you’ve been blowing away were probably more likely to be from Houston than Hamburg. The Nazis won the war, but unless they invented a cloning machine then they wouldn’t have the numbers to occupy the entire planet like this. Certainly some of their forces would need to be locally sourced. Perhaps they would have German officers in charge of native conscripts, with all of the really good hardware (the mech suits, the power armor, and the zap guns) reserved for guys from the Fatherland.

I have to wonder: What is the KKK at this point? The Nazis have put them “in charge”, but what does that mean? Are they a political party? A government agency? Are mayors, sheriffs, and city councils elected by the people, or are they appointed by the Nazi leadership? Because directly vetting and assigning a mayor for every pissant little city in the US would require an enormous bureaucracy.

To be absolutely clear: I’m not suggesting that Wolfenstein II would be a better game if the writer explained all of this. I wouldn’t want a scene where BJ has to go through a bunch of anguish because he realizes he’s been gunning down conscripted Tennessee farm boys. Like Star Wars, a big appeal of this series – indeed, maybe the entire point – is to have an unambiguously evil force to oppose so that we can do our first-person manshoots without worrying that our main character has gone too far.

It’s hard to claim that you are actually exploring an issue when all you’re doing is taking an enemy that everyone thinks is bad and presenting them as such so that people won’t feel guilty about shooting them. This is pretty much the same sort of move that games that feature Middle Eastern terrorists make, or that games released during the Cold War made when they made the Soviets the bad guys. Philosophically, making this sort of move only confirms in people opinions they already have, and doesn’t encourage them to explore their own ideas, no matter where they fall on the topic.

Especially if the representatives of the enemy are strawmen:

From here he gets a motorcycle and rides to his home in Texas.

He’s here to pick up a ring his mother gave him as a child, which was shown in a flashback during the overlong introduction to the game. While you’re here, you can watch a few more childhood flashbacks, or you can move on to the house to get the ring. Inside, he’s confronted by his father.

The flashbacks make it clear that BJ’s father Rip Blazkowicz was a cruel, hateful, violent, narrow-minded man. He beat his wife. He beat his son. He killed his son’s dog as a punishment for BJ playing with a black girl. When the two meet again here in 1961, we learn that Rip gave up his Jewish wife to the Nazis. And now he’s planning to execute his son. Also: BJ doesn’t notice until the end of the scene, but Rip called the Nazis to the house, so if he doesn’t finish his son then they will.

I think that’s about as evil as you can possibly make this guy. He’s a complete cartoon. Even when faced with a legendary and world-famous Nazi killer who’s wearing a suit of armor and is bristling with guns, Rip is such a thick-headed moron that he thinks he can continue to bully his son.

I get it. He’s a strawman. He’s an exaggerated vessel of the worst aspects of human beings. He’s here so we can kill this embodiment of evil without guilt. My problem is that this story already has lots of characters that serve this exact purpose. We have the Nazi footsoldiers in general, and Frau Engel specifically. We get to do a lot of cathartic Nazi killing in this game. That’s arguably the reason the game exists. So why are we spending this entire character to simply repeat that same theme? Is this really the most interesting thing the writer could think to do with BJ’s father?

In a game about igniting an American revolution, this is the only American civilian we talk to. For story purposes, he should probably be representative of what has happened to this country. Maybe he started off as basically a sane man with some mild racist tendencies, but once the Nazis took over the fear and desperation overcame him. So then he gave up his wife, informed on his neighbors, disavowed his son, and accepted the rewards for doing so. Each time he thought this would be the last time. And now, he confesses, he’s given you up as well. Then the player can decide to kill him or walk away. (With him dying in the subsequent attack anyway.)

That would give us a new perspective, and would re-focus our anger on the Nazis for the soul-devouring police state they created. This would be a contrast to the Nazis.

As written, this scene feels pointless and self-indulgent. When presented with the opportunity to show what kind of man raised BJ, the writer built up this twisted strawman and let the player kill him with an axe. We get to kill a lot of dudes with axes in this game. BJ’s father should be something more than a lame mook.

BJ’s father is simply a racist. He’s always been a racist. Not only has he always been a racist, he’s always been a terrible, abusive person. All this does is characterize racists as being simply terrible people, and as Shamus points out there are no other white civilians shown to cast any doubt on Grace’s assessment that white America is too far gone to save. Extra Creditz makes a rather blatant implication that we need explorations like this in this current political climate, even saying that the game strongly indicts us for “trading democracy for race-hate”. But the game doesn’t do that. The game doesn’t show that the people actually did that, that they decided that the racism outweighed their democracy in a similar way to what is purportedly happening now. And, of course, to say it like that strikes many people as being a strawman of the existing situation anyway. If you try to beat people over the head with a strawman, people will get annoyed by that, even if they don’t align with the philosophy you are strawmanning. Shamus is neither a racist nor a fascist nor even really a conservative, but he gets annoyed by the strawman because he knows people who hold the views that are being strawmanned and knows they don’t really think that way. The only people who won’t notice the strawman are the people who think that the strawman is actually accurate. To explore an issue as at least Extra Creditz seem to think the current situation is, you’d need to show how mostly “normal” people can be fooled into accepting racist arguments and fascism as the solution to those non-existent racial issues. As it is, all the game does is create evocative scenes that are only evocative to people who agree with the ham-fisted political philosophy espoused by the game.

Like the scene mentioned in the video about encountering Hitler:

Wolfenstein II is a pretty silly game, but it’s not quite cartoonish enough to pull off Mecha-Hitler without dissolving into comedy. So instead of making him a physical threat, the writer makes him an object of audience ridicule. We see Hitler as an old man[2]. He’s a disgusting senile beast who shuffles around in his bathrobe and pukes and pisses all over the room. He spits when he talks, his mood oscillates all over the place, and he casually executes people for trivial slights, real or imagined. Normally I dislike taking historical figures and turning them into grotesque caricatures for ridicule, but I figure once you’ve perpetrated a Holocaust you’re fair game.

People like to pretend Hitler was some sort of mutant instead of just a regular human being with very bad ideas because it helps us feel better about ourselves, and maybe this sort of mockery isn’t always the most nuanced or mature way to engage with this topic. But screw it. If there’s anywhere it’s appropriate to trade in slanderously exaggerated depictions of Hitler, it’s in a Wolfenstein game. This might not be the best place to learn about the complexities of historical figures or the fragility of human nature, but that’s not why we’re here.

Having said that, I really do have a problem with this scene.

While I agree that this is a great idea for a scene in a Wolfenstein game, you still need to integrate the scene with the rest of the story. We introduce five new characters in this scene: The casting director, three other actors, and Hitler himself. These characters exist only in this scene. Nothing that happens here has any bearing on the rest of the game. BJ doesn’t attain his goal or even move any closer to it. This isn’t a lead-up to a confrontation with Hitler, who we never see again. This scene is thirteen and a half minutes long, and you could excise the entire thing from the game and the player wouldn’t even know there was anything missing. You could cut from the moment BJ gets off the ship to the moment he unpacks his bags in his room and it would feel completely seamless.

There’s no real gameplay, so this doesn’t work as part of a videogame. And the plot doesn’t move forward so it doesn’t work as part of a movie. Again, this is just self-indulgent on the part of the writer.

The scene is not there to explore Nazism, fascism or racism. It’s simply there to let the writers mock Hitler and for the player to be able to vicariously mock Hitler right along with them. Now, it’s pretty safe to mock Hitler as, well, almost everyone isn’t going to like the guy. As Shamus points out, once you’ve perpetrated a Holocaust that’s probably the least you can expect. But as he also said, that’s the only purpose the scene serves. If we take Extra Creditz’s take on what games should be doing, we could expect them to want to do that sort of thing for all sorts of other political issues that they happen to think correct, but that other people think at least questionable. If a game mocks Trump in the same sort of way, it will annoy and offend some people. And not only the people who are Trump supporters, but also people who don’t support Trump but who think that he isn’t that bad. The only people who will accept and like the presentation are those who actually believe it to be the case, which means that no one else will be encouraged to reconsider their position or change their minds. It’s hard to say that you can have anything that even looks like a real exploration of a topic when there’s almost no chance anyone will even have their minds opened even the slightest by that exploration.

And that might be the actual reason that “Call of Duty” shies away from doing this. It might not be the case that they are merely timid, but rather that these details are too tangential to the game that they really want to make to put the time and effort into doing it right, and doing it wrong will just detract from the game that they really want to make. “The New Colossus”, on the other hand, is utterly unconcerned about doing it right, but instead in doing it in a way that’s over-the-top and lets them pontificate on their own positions without having to insert any kind of nuance or shades of gray into the mix. I’m not saying that’s something that games ought not do. If a game wants to do that, more power to them. I am saying that that is in no way an exploration of any kind of philosophical question that has any complexity to it whatsover, and Extra Creditz are wrong to portray it as such.

Good Player vs Good Character …

May 9, 2018

So, the next video I’m going to look at from Extra Creditz is this one about Nier: Automata and how it promotes kindness through sacrifice. My title, though, is aimed at the fact that Extra Creditz doesn’t seem to separate the character and actions taken by the character from the player and actions taken by the player. They chide most games for, they say, making the player feel like they are good people through things like goodness meters and quests to help people, but since this doesn’t require sacrifice from the player it’s hollow. It’s easy to be good, they argue, if it doesn’t cost you anything and might get you XP, money, extra quests or extra enjoyable encounters if you do it. They then say that NieR Automata pulls off what they call a good way to do that. I’m going to talk about the spoilers they gave in that game — I haven’t played it — and so I’ll put the rest below the fold:

(more…)

Unpleasant Design …

May 4, 2018

So, the first video that I’m going to look at from Extra Credits in my attempt to do more direct philosophical analysis is this one on Unpleasant Design, which is in fact pretty much just a video about philosophy and not about gaming. I’m going to touch on how this sort of design might impact games at the end, but the thrust of the video is all about real-world cases and applications. In general, it’s about attempts to design things like buildings, benches and all sorts of things in a way that they say “excludes a group of people” but really, in general, is to prevent certain things from happening by making it impossible or unpleasant for people to do those things but without explicitly banning or enforcing a ban on those activities. Their first example is about placing a number of bike racks under a bridge to prevent homeless people from sleeping there, but they also talk about designing park benches so that it’s uncomfortable for people to sleep there or even stay to long, or designing or painting the walls of buildings to discourage people from publicly urinating on them. Their main thrust is that these things are done to hide problems and so the money and effort should be spent on solving the problems and not on these sorts of unpleasant designs.

There’s a philosophical presumption that they don’t really acknowledge built into that, though: that because this targets a group — specifically homeless people — that this design approach itself is a problem rather than the intent. The issue is that even if we accept all of their presumptions about the intent of these things, the design approach itself is actually an ingenious way to achieve a common and natural design goal. No matter what, there are going to be things that a city or an area don’t want people to do in a certain area. They can invoke and enforce bans, but this is generally expensive and intrusive, and can often be confrontational, especially if it’s enforced by law. So, instead, what can be done is design the facilities so that people don’t want to use them for invalid purposes, while still allowing people to use them for valid ones. In the bike rack case, while that was almost certainly primarily useful for not having homeless people sleep there, people surely were indeed able to use them as well. If that was an area where bike racks were needed, it would produce the oft-desired “Kill two birds with one stone” solution, as people would be discouraged from sleeping somewhere they shouldn’t be sleeping, and bicyclists would get access to some much needed bike racks. So, in general, this sort of approach is the preferred way to deal with restricting actions that you don’t want to happen, as it discourages people from doing it without having to utilize massive enforcement resources to do so.

Now, of course it’s the case that at least sometimes the intent of the unpleasant design will be something that is invalid or immoral, but the video doesn’t really ever try to engage with that. There a number of valid reasons why the unpleasant design might be chosen over fixing the underlying problem. Taking the public restroom example, there is an issue that it isn’t as easy as they suggest to simply add more public restrooms. There is a cost involved, they can’t just be placed anywhere, and there’s also an additional maintenance cost to them as they have to be cleaned and potentially restocked on a regular basis (which is generally more than once a day). Simply adding more restrooms might not actually be feasible. Additionally, it’s possible that “having enough public restrooms” would mean having one every ten feet, because the reason that people were not using them wasn’t because they had no option, but because public urination was still more convenient. They might well have been able to walk to the nearest one and wait the length of time they would have to wait, but didn’t want to be bothered when using the side of a building was more convenient. Thus, by making using the side of a building less convenient they tipped the convenience scales towards using the facilities provided. Of course, it might still have been the case that there just weren’t enough public restrooms, but even in that case discouraging public urination was good design, not bad design.

The same thing can apply to the example of stores playing “uncool” music or using a simulated mosquito to discourage young people from using the store or its environs as a hang-out. If young people are not, in general, patrons of your store and just go there to hang out, that’s a problem for your store. It can block aisles and entrances so that your actual customers can’t or can’t be bothered to actually shop there, and can potentially be intimidating (especially since young people hanging out aren’t necessarily polite and respectful either). So if their doing so is likely to cost you business, then you’ll have to do something. You can come out and confront them to shoo them away on a frequent basis, or you can make it less cool for them to hang out there and so encourage them to move to a more appropriate location to hang out. The latter definitely seems to be the better option here, unless they want to claim that those young people should be able to hang out there even if they have no interest in buying anything and even if they are discouraging people who do from shopping there, which would certainly require justification.

Even the airport example could be more complicated than it seems at first glance. Certainly, less seating outside of shops and restaurants will encourage people to sit in the shops and restaurants which means that they’ll do better financially, but again adding more seating isn’t necessarily trivial. If you are in a place with a lot of foot traffic, adding more seating will create potential bottlenecks and force people to weave in and out of the seating to get to where they are going. If they’re in a hurry, then this will create frustration or even accidents, and a host of headaches for the managers. Thus, this “unpleasant design” seems again like a win-win: the shops and restaurants get more business, and it avoids cluttering up the main floor with seating and, in fact, even with people sitting down (because sitting on the floor in uncomfortable). While of course it’s not unreasonable to be cynical and suspect that the financial motive is the bigger driving force here, the counter that they could easily provide enough seating doesn’t really work either. And if they have to restrict seating, then their approach is a valid way to discourage people from doing that without having to directly enforce it.

And even if we accept their notion that the driving force behind the unpleasant design aimed at homeless people is to get them out of sight so that people aren’t bothered, unpleasant design is still a factor because even if you’re concerned about homeless people there are still going to be places where you don’t want them sleeping. If a homeless person decided to camp out at the front of my driveway so that I couldn’t drive out while they’re there, no matter how sympathetic I am to the homeless I’m going to make it clear that sleeping there isn’t an option. In the case of the bridge, since it was slated for demolition it might not have been safe for people to spend large amounts of time underneath it. If homeless people habitually sleep on bus stop or park benches will those be available for people who are waiting for a bus or resting in the park? Heck, even just sitting on those benches for too long is a problem, because if someone camps out there for, say, an entire day that means that no one else can use it that day. And since these things aren’t intended to be places for homeless people to live they couldn’t be used for their intended purpose. Unpleasant design aimed at making sure that they can be used for their intended purpose doesn’t seem quite so sinister when viewed in that light.

And even the cases where public outcry undoes the unpleasant design don’t seem like unvarnished goods. For the most part, all they do is restore one specific workaround for the homeless, but don’t really do anything to address the underlying issues. Yes, those homeless people can stay out of the rain under that bridge … or, at least, they can until it gets demolished. And even then they’re still sleeping under a bridge. And they can sleep on park benches and at bus stops again! I’m sure that that completely and totally thrills them; their life is now complete. The argument they make is that the thrust of these things is to hide the homeless so that those who are not can ignore them, but it seems to me that the campaigns they cite are just as bad, if not worse, as they allow people to feel like they’ve actually done something when, in reality, they haven’t done anything to address the underlying problem. Yes, homeless people have places to sleep again! Too bad that those places aren’t places they would sleep if they had a choice. The ideal approach would be to accept that they don’t want people sleeping there for some reason, but then insist that these people need some place to sleep and demand that something be done about that. As it is, these approaches let people feel like they’ve “helped” when they really haven’t.

So unpleasant design works well when you need to discourage people from doing things but don’t want to outright ban it in a harsh or artificial way. This brings me back to games, because this seems to be something that is great for video games. Video games will always have things that they don’t want their players to do, for various reasons. Instead of adding chest-high walls or invisible barriers, games will profit a lot from simply making it undesirable to take those actions in the first place. To take the bike rack example, if for some reason a game didn’t want players to rest under a bridge in-game, they could add obstructions that have some kind of use but make it impossible to lie down, so that the players can’t rest there no matter how much they might try (as the game keeps saying that you can’t lie down there). Sure, there’s a risk of games doing things simply to exclude a specific group, but if, say, they want to do a game focused on a male audience adding scantily clad female characters might immediately signal that this is such a male-focused game without having to actually say it on the box, like the store example above. And it’s an open question whether a game deciding to exclude a specific identifiable group is in and of itself bad.

Ultimately, the failing here is not separating the design itself from its intent, and so not properly analyzing the actions in light of what was intended. Unpleasant design is generally the right approach if you need to discourage something but don’t want to outright ban it and enforce that ban. For the most part, all of their examples assume that the intent is invalid and proceed to criticize the design on that basis alone, but they end up criticizing the approach because of the cases where the intent of it is at least reasonably invalid. Because of this, they don’t see why even in their examples things are more complicated than they appear, and why there may not be simple better solutions for the problem that they are trying to address. This, then, ends up being a prime example of the problems with shallow philosophy.