Sunday, January 7, 2018

Zelda Grown Up: The Maturity of Breath of the Wild

All my weapons are breaking. I can't climb up the mountain because it's raining. There's a bear chasing me through the woods and I'm terrified.

These are all experiences I that I never thought I would have...

A. In a Zelda game
B. While driving in a car to the Grand Canyon
C. Vicariously, through watching my wife play

Huge tracts of land!
There has never been a Zelda game as mature and complex as Breath of the Wild, which throws the hand-holding and linear tutorials of the previous games out the window. Breath of the Wild is Skyrim's Zelda. It is a massive world and one full of emergent interactions. But somehow my wife,  who has never been able to enjoy playing these kinds of complex games, played more Breath of the Wild than I did on our trip. There's a temptation to attribute this to the Switch's novelty -- a portable full-performance console in your hands on a long drive is pretty special. But I think there's also a deeper design shift in Breath of the Wild that has somehow made it more approachable for her -- it has paradoxically grown complex enough to be understandable.

Imagine you are trying to create a campfire. The game has told you that in order to create a campfire, you need wood, flint, and something metal to hit the flint with. If you're like me, a veteran of the language of game interfaces and menus, you might think that the logical first step is to go into your inventory and select the flint and choose "Make Campfire". I told her that this was probably how we would make a campfire. She looked at me funny. "What if I just drop the wood in the flint and attack the flint with my sword?"

I laughed. "You can try it, but I doubt that will work. Usually these things are coded a certain way…"

My confident smile disappeared as she whacked the flint with a spear, causing it to spark, causing the wood she had dropped to light on fire – in short, causing a campfire.Why did this kind of depth shock me so much? Because this is Nintendo! They don't do obscure complex systems and emergent interactions! Nintendo does simple and satisfying. What's going on here?

Breath of the Wild's motto, as I discovered, is to create a world that behaves intuitively, where objects interact in ways that make sense. This is visible in many aspects of the game, from the simple fact that climbing UP takes more stamina than climbing DOWN, to the sprawling cooking system with hundreds and hundreds of possible combinations. These systems make the game deeper, but also make it easier to understand for someone uninitiated in Zelda logic.

In this case, maybe it makes sense to abandon the traditional linear tutorial. There's simply too much to cram in. Instead, Breath of the Wild teaches concepts in bits and pieces as you explore – mainly from the puzzles contained in short challenge dungeons or "shrines". Shrines generally take between 5-10 minutes to complete, and focus on a single challenge that illustrates some interaction between abilities. They are quick, rewarding, and generally fairly simple. They teach you the game slowly, and they also don't force you to learn anything – in fact, many of the shrines that teach fairly basic gameplay concepts can be overlooked depending on which way you walk at the start of the game.

I can figure this out... just give me a minute...
I can remember a time when it would have felt completely antithetical to Nintendo's code to give players the ability to miss critical information, to do their own thing, tutorial be-damned. Things have obviously changed, and I think both a more adult audience of Nintendo fans AND a group of younger players who are used to more complex, Minecraft-esque systems likely drove Nintendo to try a new strategy.

The time-honored tradition of Cucco carrying.

Still, even if the pseudo-tutorial segments can be skipped, each shrine provides an essential currency enabling you to power up Link, which drives you to seek them out sooner or later. You're given the chance to learn the game by doing before being fed much information.

For me, Zelda is about exploration and discovery, and this game satisfies that on a level far and above the previous games. It is gorgeous and expansive, and feels at times like a pastel painting. The soundtrack is simple and evocative (I honestly think the simple overworld piano score echos Minecraft's original music in many ways). And the landmarks! Everywhere you look, some strange piece of terrain begs to be investigated. Surprises lurk on every mountaintop and under every rock. Just trying to move in a straight line in one direction is an adventure. All that, and without a doubt my favorite feature is the climbing. I have never seen climbing done this well, and it's amazing to be able to rock up to a cliff -- normally a clear zone-bounding element saying "Game area ends, turn around" -- and be able to climb right up and over and onto some magical little plateau or puzzle or hidden shrine or...

Avast, ye jackrabbits! I be a pirate!

For my wife, I think Zelda is really about puzzles, and the game manages to present something unique here as well. Puzzles can be explicit and bounded, such as in shrine challenges, or they can be sitting out in the middle of a field, or they can be fully emergent -- for example, figuring out how to sneak up on and/or explode from afar a group of baddies. She has rolled bombs down hills and exploded them hundreds of feet away in the middle of monster camps. She has been able to aim her bow and accurately take down sentries (in part thanks to the intuitive motion controls). And, best of all, she has discovered that she can cook almost every item in the game into something useful. She gets almost as excited about finding a new combination of herbs and fish as I do about finding a new sword.

If only all cooking worked this way.

I'm still only just exploring out of the starting area, but already I know that this game is something special in a long line of great games. I was disappointed by Skyward Sword's linear nature and lack of true exploration. Breath of the Wild obliterates that problem. I'm tremendously looking forward to sharing the ride with her and watching her develop the confidence to tackle some of the more intimidating puzzles... whether those involve rolling balls through physics mazes, challenging the menacing Stone Talus monster, or participating in the Great Hyrulian Baking Show.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

World of Warcraft: The Mountains at the End of the World

What pulled me away from Final Fantasy XI was the game that would go on to become the most popular MMORPG ever created: Blizzard's World of Warcraft.  In stark contrast to EverQuest and FFXI, WOW put a friendly face on the genre, brought it into the mainstream. In WOW, you could play solo up to the maximum level, and experience tons and tons of entertaining, well-written quests littered throughout every zone -- very few of which were restricted to groups.  WOW invented the idea of color-coded item rarity to tell you at a glance just how generally valuable what you picked up was, and it was full of ways to acquire these items without joining a massive guild.

Beyond that, the map of World of Warcraft was huge.  I think the reason why I played World of Warcraft for such a long time was that Blizzard was not only great at designing good content, they were extremely good at building a horizon and tempting you towards that content. Beyond EverQuest or Final Fantasy, World Of Warcraft was designed to be big and seamless – you could pass from area to area without any loading screens, you could climb almost all of the terrain inside a zone, and distant areas could dynamically load as you got closer, preventing pop-in or hitches. At the time of its release, this level of freedom was unprecedented in such a large game.

Of course, this presented some problems for the developers -- namely, it was very hard to seal up such a big world neatly and keep everyone in the box that they were meant to stay in. Players were always rooting around in areas they weren't meant to be in. They were always nibbling at the edges, trying to break through to the game's secrets. And just once, I managed break through myself, escaping from World of Warcraft to a place both within the game, and outside it.

At release, World of Warcraft was littered with inaccessible, half-finished "closed zones" (shown in red).
The story goes like this: I was sitting at the Horde encampment of Kargath, in the Badlands of the Eastern Kingdom, looking for something to do. Tired of questing, of gathering vulture wings and hyena guts, I found a particular wall where I could climb quite high – the art of wall walking was a unique skill in World of Warcraft, requiring a lot of guess-work and careful angling.  So I decided to test my skills and see if I could reach the lip of the cliff that hung over the encampment.

Kargath, Badlands
After about 10 minutes of attempting various routes up the craggy hills, I finally made it to the top of the cliff. And what I saw, looking north, was very strange. Beneath my feet and behind me was the iron red dust of the Badlands, but just a few steps away I saw the bright green biomes from the north clashing with it, meeting in jagged angles and mashing together. I saw expanses of such distorted terrain stretching off along the cliff to the west and north, terrain un-smoothed by any level designer. In the distance to the west, featureless mountains rose into the haze, looking plain and oddly colored, as if not meant to be seen from this angle or in this skybox.

I knew at once that I wasn't supposed to be here.  I was deviating from the prescribed Player Experience(TM); this area was obviously an in between, an unfinished space where the world's stitches were rough and shoddy. However, there was no hardcoded prohibition on this area – something that might normally punish such trespassers, as was in place on some other more story critical areas such as Mount Hyjal – so I was free to sight-see, as long as the Game Masters weren't looking too hard. I started walking.

I passed through jagged, mixed biomes of soot and snow, ash and grass. I was traveling west, along the ridge in between what would now be the Searing Gorge and area of the Dwarves starting city, Iron Forge. Between these areas, there was a blank space. A place where it looked like the continent continued, but the area had no name, little color, and sparse detail. I walked towards this void, curious as to what I would see.

The mountains became more numerous. The biome solidified more into a snow zone, pulling from the Dwarven homeland to the north. I spotted the backside of a little tower, and walked toward it... finding then that, cresting a hill, I was looking down on the Dwarves' starting zone. From the edge of a high cliff, I could look down and watch low-level Dwarves and Gnomes going about their quests and monster killing, no idea that they were being watched. I thought about leaping down into the fray, attempting to take out as many newbies as I could before the guards hunted me down – the stories they would tell, of warriors that fell from the sky – but, of course, the starting areas are 100% protected even on PVP servers. No harm would be done to anyone but the monsters and quest NPCs. So I turned from the manicured snow-valley and walked again towards the ragged unknown.

The mountains began to slope downward. I walked down an extremely steep incline of snowy slope, treading carefully in some places to avoid a long fall into a lonely death. Finally, the slopes gave way to a perfectly flattened expanse of white. I turned around here, and I saw the massive mountain I had just walked down, a landmark not on any map. It was a piece of terrain on a scale that you don't see anywhere else in the game – too large to be practical as a designed area, rough, unfinished, but somehow even more convincing for it.  It was neither a piddly little mound meant to be climbed up in a few seconds to grab some quest item at the top, nor an ultra-steep needle peak designed to look like the cover of a fantasy novel. Despite the occasional grid-like texturing oddities, looked like a snowy mountain in the middle of a remote wilderness, something not designed for anyone's eyes at all.

I turned away from the mountain and walked out onto the white plain. I could see something in the distance, an edge. As I approached, I saw a massive cliff that curved away in both directions in a shallow arc. It was a pit, a gigantic perfectly cylindrical crater, and although I could see the bottom, the side walls stretched into the distance beyond the fog barrier. At the bottom of the pit, the white gave way to featureless brown dirt texture, what I assumed was the bedrock or sea level of the game. The default state of the world. It was perhaps the rough foundation of an entire zone meant to be created later, as a builder might create a house by first digging out the basement.

The mountain stretching into the sky, the huge pit stretching into the earth – the scale was truly massive, dwarfing anything I had seen in the game before. For a moment I imagined the map designer creating this with just a few swipes of her brush, creating an entire world for the ant-sized players to crawl around and explore. The unfinished edges and mistakes, like this mountain and this valley, like crumbs for the ants -- something left behind unintentionally to seek out and gobble up.

At this point I submit for your viewing two relics of the past... recordings of my trip to the Closed Zone I made in 2004, twice-transferred and sitting on an old hard-drive in a dead computer, removed and extracted via an adapter I got off Amazon.

I have no idea if these areas still exists in the game, as the world has undergone a total overhaul since then in the Cataclysm expansion, rewriting much of the terrain. I'm at least sure that the gap in the world at Kargath has long since been plugged, but there are of course many other ways to reach such places, and always new strange spaces popping up as they add new content. The reach of behind-the-scenes explorers has extended into far stranger places than the one I visited, as chronicled in the early years of the game by the videos of DopeFish and others.

To their credit, Blizzard created a world convincing and credible enough that its underbelly had a special appeal of its own. It was as if, in visiting these places, you could walk under the surface of the earth and see every tunnel, substrate, and substructure -- as if you could see the components of the world all cobbled together and sticking out at weird angles. As if you could understand in some small way how it was all put together.

Despite developers' best efforts to close the holes and squash the ants crawling between the walls, I suspect there will always be a way out in games this big, tunnels to the in-betweens where the stitching shows. And there's something special about seeing these places in person. I encourage you to seek them out!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Fate of the Stalker: Roadside Picnic and Environmental Terror

One of my favorite movies of all time is a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, "Stalker" (called "The Zone" in its English release).  I stumbled upon this film while scanning cable channels late one night with my parents asleep. I first saw characters walking through a field of grass, tentatively, cautiously, stopping and throwing little objects to test the path. The reason for their caution was unclear, but the guide was utterly dedicated to it. He had little bolts with cloth tied to them that he would toss.  It was a slow film, but it intrigued me, and I kept coming back to it as it progressed.

One bolt the guide tossed sailed through the air – and made no sound when it fell. The characters tensed. Did the grass just muffle the sound? Or something else?

I highly recommend watching the film – it is an engaging story and beautifully shot. Tarkovsky was an incredible filmmaker, and the movie is full of gorgeous scenes from abandoned factories and overgrown fields and dilapidated Russian architecture.  For me, watching it is almost a meditative experience, as there are often very long, slow panning cuts, sometimes with narration overlaid. The dialogue and the characters are excellent, witty and biting, each character keeping their own reason close to chest for venturing into this strange place.

The movie was inspired by a piece of Russian fiction called Roadside Picnic, a story about an area of Russia that is suddenly designated "off-limits" due to a variety of strange anomalies and artifacts that appear overnight – perhaps left by aliens – and cause havoc for anyone who ventures within or brings the artifacts out.  As in the film, the word Stalker here takes a different meaning than is common today; it is used for those who regularly travel into the zone, learn its strange rules, and guide others through.  They are Stalkers – those who stalk the zone.

In addition to the film, another piece of entertainment was also spawned by the book – the game Stalker: Shadows of Chernobyl and its many sequels and spinoffs (currently discounted on Steam's Halloween sale).  Although the game emphasizes more of the fantastic elements of the original book than the film does, it also makes a pretty clear connection between the unearthly anomalies and the very real disaster that occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.  It effectively creates a link between the fear of radiation and the fear of the unknown, both threats that operate on a level beyond what our instincts have trained us to cope with – things we can't see, smell, hear, or taste, but which can kill us easily if we aren't careful. Frequently, in the game, you must avoid radiation hazards along with more otherworldly threats such as gravitational anomalies or mutated creatures.

Stalker is an excellent atmospheric shooter, a beautiful recreation of many of the areas in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and an occasionally terrifying game.  It has some interesting RPG elements in resource and inventory management, and a lot of exploration in discovering and plundering abandoned sites.  However, there is something interesting about the actual history behind the book and the film that the title of the game glosses over quite effortlessly – a fact which is a bit hard to believe looking back at these works. In truth, both Roadside Picnic (1971) and Stalker (1979), fictions the game draws heavily on, were written and released before the Chernobyl disaster even occurred (1986). This is a strange thing to consider: Chernobyl and the surrounding area are even today still off-limits, due to invisible forces that are a threat to human life. In effect, humanity created the zone envisioned in Roadside Picnic.

In reality, no alien intervention was necessary; there is nothing mystical about radiation.  The science is mostly understood, its effect on humans is mostly understood, and its sources are mostly understood.  It only defies reason in the fact of its pervasiveness and persistence, its potential as a disaster that extends far beyond our own timescale – a disaster that we can create, but not stop, and not outlive. The strange threats observed in the original book – the Witch's Jelly that dissolves bone but passes through all other matter, the gravity anomalies that can catch and crush the unwary to pulp, the invisible, suffocating webs – they pale in comparison to what we are actually capable of.

And beyond this, in cruel irony, even before there was a Chernobyl zone, the actors in the film Stalker were themselves subject to the very real invisible terrors of environmental contamination. The factory many scenes of the film was shot in was an old chemical plan. Many of the environments and materials visible in the film were toxic or carcinogenic. As a result, a large portion of the actors who worked in the film passed away just years after due to a variety of health complications - including the director, Tarkovsky.

Yet these works are not without some form of hope.  All three of the fictional expressions of this myth have in common the idea of a Grail of some kind, the one artifact hiding in the zone that can fix everything, grant any wish. All you must do is find it.  In the book, it's a golden orb.  In the film, a room. In the game, a monolithic structure.  These places and things are what the Stalkers seek: they dream to be the one who finds the one artifact that can change the world or change their own life for the better. In this way, the fiction suggests that we can find a solution, if we can survive long enough.  The same power to destroy and corrupt can be used to cure, if wielded with knowledge and compassion (the compassion part is very important at the end of Roadside Picnic).

In reality, the stakes are indeed very high for us, as both individuals and as a species.  At this point, the damage we are able to do to the world may actually outlive those with knowledge of it.  We are entirely capable of being the aliens of the novel, the advanced race that left its toys behind quite accidentally, disfiguring the earth not only physically but almost metaphysically, creating fields and areas that are lethal and, thousands of years later, not understood by any living creature.  This could create ways of life akin to the stalkers', where the land is alive and unpredictable in new ways, where the only safe way is the careful, roundabout way, threading between unseen disasters.

Yet that vague hope exists that one of the toys left behind will be the key to fixing everything.  A foolish hope, perhaps, given that it is always easier to destroy than to create or repair.  Why would we leave things broken if we had the power to fix them?  Perhaps the real lessons that Roadside Picnic and its offspring can teach us are, first: that we must leave knowledge behind as well. We must always teach those that come after how the world works, how it is broken, and how it might be fixed eventually.  If we fall into the superstition of the Stalkers and those they guide, testing the next step only and living day to day, we will have forgotten why the rules are there and who made them.  If we seek only to survive that next step, then we give up on our ability to change the whole.  We can help the life that comes after us understand the messes we leave behind, and we can hope that someday, they will be cleaned up.

Second: don't litter.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Final Fantasy XI: The Penultimate Frontier

After the grind of EverQuest, and its ultimate letdown, you'd think I'd have learned my lesson. You might expect that I'd just steer clear of the entire genre of MMORPG's. Such was not the case.

What could have possessed me to dive into another one of these games? Clearly, I was getting something valuable out of the Massively Multiplayer genre, something that neither solo games nor life in the outside world at the time could offer. The ability to chat over text and voice with a group of people who were into similar stuff (video games), and who wanted to play together and work towards accomplishing shared goals, is an incredibly powerful draw – especially when you don't have a group like that outside the game.  For me, MMO games were in many ways simply a better context for social interaction.

Outside the game, I did have friends, but they didn't really need me in the same way that a low-level Taru White Mage running from a massive spawn of bandits did. The people I met online, they needed me simply because of the context of the game – it's always about the challenge of survival, against the environment or against other players.  There was a reason for us to work together, to learn about each other.  And this, apparently, is what my brain needed to help me be a more social person – a blank slate, and some context.

Plus, in FFXI, you could tame a big yellow chicken and ride it around. So there's that.

Final Fantasy XI did a great job of emphasizing that "work together" feeling -- sometimes too well, as I would find out late in my FFXI career.  The game world was just as dangerous as EverQuest's, with solo leveling almost impossible after a point very early on. In fact, at certain points, you were simply prevented from gaining any more experience until you completed the next "Genkai" quest, to "limit break" and unlock further levels. These quests required groups from small to gigantic and often required rare drops or travel to remote locations.  The final one even required you to duel a copy of yourself to the death, burning a rare "cannot carry more than one" tagged drop every attempt. Talk about punishing.

In its favor, Final Fantasy XI was catering to a specific kind of player -- players who had cut their teeth on games like EverQuest, Ultima Online, and even the Korean grind fest MMO's such as Lineage. These players were more organized and more hard-core about the game. They formed "static" groups with coordinated schedules, so they could level at the same pace throughout the game and quickly reach a high level.  They utilized FFXI's public character profile tool to detail all of their statistics, so that when looking for a pickup group people could see what you were about. And they paid damn good attention to those statistics, especially Accuracy – which often meant the difference between getting your powerful skills off and contributing to party damage, or just sitting there thwacking away with a wiffle bat.
 Unfortunately, I somehow managed to devote significant time to the game and yet still not be serious enough to keep up with those crazy players who chased the top-tier challenges – I was splitting my time between work, school, and the game, so many of the static group schedules didn't work for me.

I also had the misfortune of picking the class that I wanted most to play – a Shadow Knight – and not one that would be essential and always in tremendous demand in every party – such as a White Mage.  In theory, the game was balanced around the same "holy trinity" role concept as EverQuest -- tank, healer, and damage.  However, no one likes to play tanks or healers, because that's boring. So, at the exact moment in the game where leveling starts to require a well-balanced group, you suddenly see is a massive surplus of classes such as Shadow Knights, Dragoons, Thiefs, Explodey Magic Guys, and anyone else who focuses on sticking things with the pointy end. Tanks remain in high demand, while healers become a kind of rare gemstone or fantasy creature, like unicorns, the memory of which you treasure during hard times.

Of course, FFXI's developers also learned the lesson from EverQuest that it's important to design your game such that the relative hierarchy of class usefulness isn't obvious in the early levels, because otherwise you'll just drive off players who want to play a specific class. If you wait to spring this unfortunate fact on them until later, then they'll already be committed to their class and will likely keep struggling on. And struggle we did.

I did manage to glom onto a few consistent groups for a few levels here and there, but for the large part I was on my own. As I sat in the capital city, Jeuno, I would watch the airships fly in and out and wait for hours for a possible party invite.

I would sit there, regularly spamming my name, level, class, and the tag "LFG" (looking for group) in world chat. Sometimes I would log in on the weekend and sit for several hours without hearing a peep, or accomplishing anything of note. I revised my little paragraph of character profile text over and over again to try and make myself sound like a more desirable, friendly, and well-mannered group member, boasting about my various statistics. Comparing that profile to a dating profile would be apt – its composition was certainly as much if not more so guided by desperation.

On top of the class issues, the language barrier added to the difficulty of finding a group on your own. One interesting aspect of FFXI is that there was no service split across regions – Japanese and American and players from other regions throughout the world all played on the same servers. The game incorporated a "keyword" language system to help alleviate communication issues, allowing you to use predetermined chunks of language in chat that would be automatically translated to whatever language the viewing player was using. It was still exceedingly rare to actually play with people speaking other languages, though, since the keyword system was pretty limited.

However, on very rare occasions, the system would enable something magical. The rule was, if you ever got an invite that was composed entirely in auto-translated keywords, you took that invite. Because that almost always meant you had hit the jackpot… An invite from a Japanese group.

Oh god yes, pick me, pick me!

Japanese groups were FFXI's true target audience. Uniformly full of players dedicated to the game with complete mastery of all its mechanics (at least, that's how many of the US players saw them). The fact that they were inviting me, someone who at the time spoke no Japanese, was further testament to the utter confidence they had in their abilities. They just wanted an average player to round out their amazing group and contribute a little damage. This mediocre role was one I could fulfill admirably. I might even rise to the level of "above average random damage guy" if I worked extra hard, perhaps earning a future group invite!

These groups would kill monsters before I could even walk up to them, use routes and leveling areas that I'd never heard of, play with bizarre class combinations and skill sets that somehow worked amazingly well, and generally wipe the floor with the game. I was invited to maybe 3 or 4 of them, ever.

Sometimes these players could even work magic alone. I remember my friend the Red Mage very well. I had just joined a party that was almost full, at 4 of the 5 required five players, getting ready to go off and hunt lizards in a cave.  However, we had no healer. This was obviously a problem because of the whole Trinity thing. Naturally, we couldn't find a White Mage – so we were looking at imitation options, such as a Red Mage who was using White Mage as a subclass, which give them decent healing potential.

After 45 minutes of waiting, we finally found a Red Mage. He was Japanese. Perfect! The only problem was, he adamantly refused to use the White Mage subclass. He was using a purely damage focused subclass – a weapon-based class, no less.

None of us had ever seen this before, and we were extremely skeptical. We tried to communicate over and over that we needed healing, that we would prefer if he used a healing subclass to augment his skills, but he said again and again – through keywords – that it would be fine.

We thought about kicking him out. But we were desperate, and, after all, he was a Japanese player. How could he be wrong about anything? So off we trudged into the caves, with a Red Mage using a 100% weapon focused subclass, a Paladin tank who could sort of heal himself, and a bunch of damage dealers.

It turned out, we didn't need much healing, because this Red Mage ate lizards for breakfast. He had found a bizarre combination of weapon enhancement magics and skills that made him a lizard killing machine. He was doing at least twice if not more damage than any other single party member.  Lizard corpses littered the cave, and we showered him with praise for his unconventional and incredibly effective build.

Although I did have a lot of fun with FFXI, and met some great people, I'm still surprised at how long I persevered with the game. It was just so difficult to make progress, and yet it felt so satisfying once you finally got there. I completed all of the limit breaker quests and got very close to the maximum level; I amassed all of the rare weapon skills for my class, however useless they were; and I acquired all my class armor, and even joined a few high-level raids.

I think FFXI and EverQuest taught me an important lesson – when you're playing the kind of game that can become a lifestyle, you want that game to have some flexibility. You want to be able to enjoy it on your own or with a group. FFXI was great fun when the alchemy of the game created a balanced party, but it was god-awful unplayable alone, or if the conditions weren't right. And even if suffering sweetens the reward, you should never allow that to become the rule. We've at least got to drape a nice cloth over the Skinner box, right?

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Lost Scrolls of Gravok

Discovered in a waste-bin in the long-sealed basement of a forgotten city, these scrolls seem to tell the tale of a simple soldier's anger management issues, quest for revenge, and perpetual poverty. The scroll is awkwardly marked "GRAVOK" and is written in a dialect known to linguistic scholars as "Simpleton's Inoxian." 

The calligraphy appears to improve considerably in later reports; the writer appears to have been inexperienced with letters.

Gravok First Time Report

Tinker-man busy, so Gravok write report. Gravok write good for Inox, use big words like 'report.' This report about Rat-man, Tinker-man, and Gravok going to big water place, killing things, and taking stuff. 

First thing. In city we spend gold. Rat-man buy cloak of not-finding, Gravok buy shield. Then something happen: other (bad) rat-man try to steal all gold. Our (good) rat-man chase him and get gold back, and find even more gold, and smelly cloak. Now rat-man have TWO cloak. Tried to wear both (looks funny).

Second thing. We decide to go to broken boat on map. We go to land-water place to get not-broken boat to go there. On way, we find small dog. Rat-man say to leave, but Tinker-man say take care of dog, bring with on boat. Gravok like dog too, so we bring. Dog distract Tinker-man in fight, but make people like us more.

Third thing. Boat get to island with other big, broken boat. Very cold and windy. Gravok does not like. We fight big crab-things on beach. Rat-man fight well, make them stop while we kill them. Then we go inside cave, fight Frost Demon (hates fire, likes cold). Lots of walking, very long cave, many rocks. Then we go inside boat and fight more Frost Demon and many Living Shade. Living Shade very weak but very hard to hurt. Tinker-man and Rat-man pick up lots of gold. Gravok pick up two gold.

Last thing. We get to last room. Some Shades, lots of gold, treasure chest. Others pick up all gold. Gravok open chest and get shiny. Look weak and useless, but Tinker-man say very good. Let Gravok make things go where he wants. Gravok keep.

Gravok head tired now. We go back to not-water. Report over.

Gravok Second Time Report

Gravok write report. 

Party find Gravok in town and say, "We go fight big demon." Gravok say, "Ok."

Something happen in town. Gravok forget what. Not important.

On way to big demon, we see strange white birds. Gravok say not shoot birds, bad luck. We not shoot. Birds fly closer and we see they are not birds, they are big flying lizards. Everyone see how smart Gravok is. Also, Gravok feel we need telescope if big lizard look like small bird.

We get to demon place. Hot and cold and dark and light all at once. We can go left or right -- choose left-way. We fight every kind of demon just in first few rooms.

Then Gravok sees rat-man does not loot coins, won't touch them. Gets idea. Gravok sneaks up on coins. Loots THREE coins at once! Most ever! After, we find an empty room with treasure chest in it. Gravok is closest. Gravok loots that too. Gravok find neck thing. Very expensive looking. Cannot wear with helm. Gravok sell later. First, jangle in front of rat-man to make him angry! Can't loot! Ha ha!

Then we reach BIG demon. Bigger than Gravok thought. Gravok think rest of party die soon, but not worried. Gravok strong. Then, demon use funny table and Gravok can not hurt him, no matter how hard he swing. Have to hurt table instead. But table runs away! How? Gravok does not know.

We chase the table into the path that we did not choose, the right-way. Many demons inside right-way. Magic person say table move like clock-hand, will come to us if we go other way, so we run. Everyone but rat-man. Rat-man run towards room with many demons! Sacrifices self to make demons bunch up and slow down. Rat-man last long time, but finally have to run away. Gravok feel bad for mocking with necklace. Rat-man very brave.

Finally table comes to us. We try to hit, but table is fast! Goes right past us. We run to catch up, all very tired, about to fall down. Then Gravok hits table one last time and it breaks!

Big demon very sad, dies when table dies. All demons die. We loot many gold. Go home.

Report over.

Gravok Third Time Report

Gravok write report.

Before fight, dice man try to play with us. Gravok hate dice. We tell smelly dice man to go away. Others like us more.

We go into shadowy place in town because girl asked us to. Many cultists, and also hounds, bones, spirits, flame demons... and bats, and little fungus that moves, and lava golem, and two wolves (not hounds), and robot... why so many things? Gravok so confused. Which should he hit?

In last room we stop cultists doing bad thing, demons appear. Fire everywhere, but only hurts Gravok, no one else hurt. Why? Why is only Gravok hurt?

After finished, Gravok notice he has no coins. Others pick up many. Why? Why do coins hide from Gravok only?

Did Gravok use bad necklace too many times? Or maybe evil compass? Is Gravok... cursed? Doomed?

Gravok go drink now. Report over.

Gravok Last Time Report

Gravok write report.  Last report, Gravok done with quest.  Gravok not talk about quest before.  Gravok explain.

Bandits long time ago burn down Gravok's village.  Gravok want to fight them, but they run.  Wore purple stuff.  Coward purple bandits.  Gravok leave village, only one left.  Write in tree, "Gravok kill purple bandits."

Gravok go to Gloomhaven to ask where purple bandits are.  Meets tinker-man, rat-man (might be bandit, but good), scoundrel (definitely bandit, might be good), spell-maker, and others.  Gravok does work with them with shield and sword (mostly shield).  Gravok thinks, these ones like coin, they will find purple bandits.

Gravok right.  After much work, many coins found (not by Gravok), we find purple bandits in forest.  Rat-man, Tinker-man, Complicated-magic-man come with us.  We kill bandits and many other things. Kill bears and imps too.

[[Scrawled in the margin]] bears and imps live in house in woods, bandits live outside -- why?

One purple bandit have map to forest hideout.  We go there.  Many purple bandit.  Gravok angry, shouts "Kill, kill, kill!"  Friends kill very well, Gravok can almost not find bandits to hit with sword.  In last room, find magic-people tied up by bandits.  We fight with them and kill bandits.  Finally, Gravok hits last bandit over head.  Gravok lets magic-people kill last bandit.  Gravok get revenge, magic-people get revenge.

One magic-person thank Gravok.  Has big bow.  Name is too long, Gravok call him Doom-finder. 

Gravok understand now he not doomed -- Gravok is like new friend, makes doom for others.  We shake hand.  Good friend!

Gravok revenge done.  Tired of getting hit all the time, so Gravok stop doing work.  

Tinker-man stop also, done fighting.  Maybe he becomes big thing-maker, get very rich.  Maybe Gravok help make things.  Gravok cheap labor, used to low pay.

Report over.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

EverQuest: Danger, Suffering, and Freedom

Damn, that intro music...

Ok, so maybe the epic-ness of this midi track it doesn't quite shine through today.  I guess it was never really the song itself that grabbed me, it was the promise attached to it.  EverQuest promised an open 3D world bigger than you could ever conceivably explore.  It promised long term character growth and constant persistent multiplayer.  It promised so much game, and delivered so little. 

Yes, EverQuest was huge both in its scope and in its problems. Its developers were committed to creating a world where players *must* work together to achieve success.  The idea was that this would create a real sense of community, of banding together against insurmountable odds. The reality was that it made for one of the most punishing and unfun experiences a majority of the time, forcing you to focus efforts on finding said groups, balanced collections of players & classes who both played a around the same speed as you and whom you trusted fairly well.

Want to try going it solo?  Experience the sadness of dying alone over and over and over. Even with a group, the difficulty of leveling and the agonizing pace of experience gain would never abate, and the threat of death was always looming around every corner.  The game was a tremendous treadmill.  In addition, the world at times seem almost sadistically constructed -- high-level monsters were randomly placed in low-level areas, and the AI was such that they would chase the poor new players as long as it took to kill them, unless they could escape to the next "zone".  As if the death penalties of losing experience and potentially a previously gained level weren't enough, you also ran the risk of potentially losing ALL of your equipment and inventory if you don't get back to your body.  And don't get me started on the ridiculous endgame, the massive raids of hundreds of players all standing in place for hours watching their characters swing swords and/or wave wands with little damage numbers appearing in the chat bar.  These raids would make World of Warcraft's old 40 player raids seem positively exciting.  Just look at this example of EQ's pulse-pounding raid action:

Why would anyone play such a thing? Well, because it was new.  It was a world to explore, and we didn't know any better. No one had done this type of game before. No one knew how punishing it should be or what systems make the most sense for a game this big, this ambitious, designed to keep players playing indefinitely (hence the name). There was no World of Warcraft yet to copy off of. This was the first.

A punishing, massive, and at times cryptically designed group based RPG – much closer to Dungeons and Dragons perhaps than many more recent MMOs in the same vein, which end up playing more like action games.  The only thing missing from the DND comparison would be any sense of role-playing or storytelling. In EverQuest, you didn't need to use your imagination – the world was built for you, for better or worse.

That's not the whole story of why I played so long, though. There were two big reasons top keep me playing EverQuest for over 3 years. The first is that many of the friends that I made in SubSpace decided to start playing EverQuest, and I tagged along because why not try something new with friends?  Thus was born the guild "Hero", a group with a joyful and also sad history of adventure and absorption into the mega-guild Realm of Ages, which tackled the game's super high level endgame content in those aforementioned 100+ player raids. 

To be fair, as boring as raiding was, the folks in Hero and RoA made the game much more fun than it would have been otherwise. I'm really thankful that I was able to play with them for so long.  Even though I never became a raiding master or a high-level contributor, I felt like I got to see a lot of things in the game that would be very difficult to see without a tremendous amount of help. And I got a lot of very good equipment that Talroke the Puny Shadow Knight had no business having.

The second reason I stuck with EQ was much more personal. My Dad and I both played games. EverQuest was a game that only one of us could play at a time (the lack of household awareness of things like "routers" and "broadband" at the time made sure of that). Still, even with this restriction, my Dad and I were quickly addcited to the game. We created characters on different servers, and took turns playing. I have many memories of sitting behind him, watching him actually contribute to some amazing raid (he attained a much higher level than I ever achieved) or fight some creature I never encountered, or him sitting behind me, observing and offering suggestions. We started characters on other ends of the world – he started a barbarian shaman in the glacial ice region, while I started a wood elf in the forested region, a continent away. So it was also a way to see different areas of the game earlier than I would have been able to otherwise.

Again, this world was BIG, and traveling across it was NOT easy.  Nothing captures the feeling of vastness this game would give you then traveling between continents for the first time. At one of the major cities, you would get on a boat at a dock, and the boat would leave for a 30 minute or so journey across the ocean. Sometimes on these voyages you would see strange things – islands roamed by cyclops, stirrings in the water of dangerous sea life, etc. The voyages gave a sense of scale to the world that would've been impossible with something like a teleportation spell – although those existed as well for higher level players.

In addition, the starting areas of EverQuest had character.  Take the barbarian hometown of Halas.  Here is a place that does not like visitors – the only way to get there from civilization is to travel through a pitch black maze of caves, which was a murder hole for newer players trying to escape the zone into the nearby capital city of Qeynos.  Unless you were a race with dark vision -- i.e. not a Barbarian -- you'd better hope you were able to figure out the game's clunky lighting system.  Fire beetle eye, anyone?

If that's not punishing enough for you, try my own personal starting city, Kelethin.  The wood elf starting zone sits entirely among the treetops – with zero safety railings. Yes, the forest floor was littered with the corpses of fresh young wood elves, especially a certain patch very near to the new character spawn point. That's one way to fertilize your crops, I guess?

In all, from the very beginning, EverQuest was designed to teach you to respect the world and avoid danger. Death was everywhere, and death meant a loss of progress, sometimes quite a lot of progress.  This, combined with the reliance on having a regular group of people to progress at later levels, created a very stressful game, and often quite an isolating one.  I never actually achieved a very high level in the game, despite having many friends to play with. I just could not grind as hard as they could, and they would out level and outpace me, making it difficult to play with them. The game just could not keep my attention quite as tightly as with them in its traditional form.  Instead of power-leveling one character to the maximum, I constantly created new characters to experience different classes and environments -- hampering my progress toward any level cap significantly.

This brings me to a less traditional and very short lived aspect of the game, one that gripped me entirely, but that you've likely never heard of: Play as a Monster.  This experimental feature allowed you to spawn on one of the PvP servers as a low-level monster.  No progress, no items, no experience points -- just a single spawn as a fire beetle or a kobold or some other wimpy creature.  Die, and that spawn was over. 

This essentially allowed you to go into the world in camouflage, becoming part of the environment -- very similar to the world-invasion style multiplayer that Dark Souls would popularize years later.  While this feature was available, I was completely addicted to it. Every time I clicked the "monster" button, the game would find a monster somewhere randomly across it's massive game world, and give you control of it.  This sounds like it could be a bit boring -- and sometimes it was.  But, consider the moments where you appear somewhere familiar -- say, the forest surrounding Kelethin -- and recognized that you had spawned as something that, though low level, was nevertheless about 5 levels higher than the average player in that area.  Yes, you could wreak some real havoc. Eventually, of course, people figured it out. My rampage as a level 9 Crushbone Orc in the Wood Elf starting zone was probably my bloodiest spree as a monster, but eventually a band of newbies formed to hunt me down and end my reign of terror.

That's just scratching the surface of being a monster, though.  More subtle interactions were possible as well.  Imagine you are a low-level player in a low-level group, and you are tasked with the duty of "pulling" monsters to the group to be killed. This was a very common assignment in EverQuest, as groups would usually pick a safe spot out of the path of rampaging high-level monsters or fields of random spawns, and make camp there to kill things and take their stuff safely.  So, you run out to the fields with your bow and arrow, and you spot a lion of about the right level, and you shoot it with an arrow. This should provoke an immediate reaction as the lion AI locks on to you, ready to chase you until the ends of the earth (or in this case, to a very quick end at the hand of many low-level daggers).

Instead of chasing you, however, the lion sits down.

You cannot believe your eyes. What programmed behavior is this? Have you tamed the lion?  Is it a quest giving lion, some kind of rare spawn?  Or has the lion developed consciousness? Is it submitting to death, tired of the endless line of players jogging past it, ignoring it entirely, or of being lead to lion-murdering teams over and over?

Being uncertain of an entity's status as AI or player-controlled is one of those strange states in gaming where you start to question what signifies sentience.  Going back to Dark Souls, I'll never forget the first invasion I experienced in Dark Souls 2 -- a player named Armorer Dennis.  He was the first invader I ever encountered, a bright red specter of death and aggression. I was terrified of him. I ran from him, and he chased me through the level, firing all kinds of high-level spells.  Finally, after dying to him twice, I hid from him in an attic up a ladder for 10 minutes, thinking I would ambush him as he came around the corner.  My heart was thumping. I was ready to fight, to go down swinging. I watched that door for a long time.

But Dennis never came. He couldn't climb the ladder. He was actually an AI invader masquerading as a player, and his pathing didn't extend that far into the level. When I realized this, after laughing at myself, I was suddenly no longer afraid of him. I went back and found a way to grab all the stuff he was guarding without fighting him and run off to a new area. That hint of intelligence can give an experience life, and make you always question -- does that thing really see me?  Or is it programmed?

Beyond the PvP aspect, there is one last element to monster life that I found while roaming the world as a lowly bug, something I never did find as a player: freedom. Sometimes you would spawn in an area with zero activity. No players running around making things happen, just the monsters wandering on their patrols, just the environment being itself. A lone monster with intelligence crawling across a vast wilderness. Something about the experience of exploring the area as one of its "enemies" – as a cog in the machine so to speak – gave them an entirely new context.  You could go anywhere you wanted, and you were unlikely to be attacked. You could go into the places the players never went because they were too dangerous or too maze-like, or because there was simply no reason to look inside that room. You could see things that likely very few players had ever seen, simply because they didn't see the purpose in claiming that particular hill in the middle of nowhere.

This was the one thing that EverQuest achieved that no other game I had played before it was able to do – through all of its hardship and danger and challenge, it made me respect the world to the degree that the freedom to explore that world was a miraculous gift. Thus, a lowly orc shaman crossed a desert filled with cyclops, a kobold explored Minotaur labyrinths, and an ice gnoll wandered the crags outside Halas.  In a way, this was the true fulfillment of what EverQuest promised to me in its intro screen -- not a power fantasy, not a platform for social interaction and competition, but simply a place to explore different enough from our own and convincingly realized.  A place where you could, at times, tell your own story entirely without words.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

SubSpace: Arcade Asteroids & Angst

SubSpace is a game about little spaceships going pew pew pew.  It was released in 1997, and is still running -- you can even find it on Steam!

SubSpace holds a special place in my memory. It was my first experience spending a long time in an online community with chat features, in which I grew to know many of the other aliases very well -- their personalities, their playstyles, and their hangups.  I imagine it might have served a purpose for me similar to what Minecraft does for many of today's youth: a mostly unmoderated digital playground where you encounter both jerks and nice people.  For SubSpace, more of the former.

I played it for years -- I gave advice, I trash talked, I helped new players out, I made friends, I hunted veterans down and blew up their little spaceships, I cried out victorious, I ran into walls, I crashed and burned.  And, once, I was mistaken for a racist.

Let me talk about the mechanics of SubSpace. Subspace is a 2-D asteroids style arcade multiplayer game. Back in the day, the default game mode was to spawn in a giant zone full of enemies.  In this game mode, you start out in a very low powered ship -- your bullets are crap, you can hardly turn, and you have absolutely none of the single use goodies such as Thor's Hammer (a projectile that flies through walls) or Repel (shove all enemies away).

To power yourself up and stand a chance of blowing up other ships, you have to run over a bunch of little green boxes all over the map until your gauges hit 100% and and you are flush with items.  This typically takes about 10 minutes on average, less if you're lucky, or more if you're unlucky. After death, you lose all of the power ups that you collected and start out from square one.

Being a low powered ship sucked. You wanted to get out of that state as quickly as possible, because some unscrupulous players would run around after they had powered up and blow up all of the low-power chips.

Of course,  they are punished for this heinous act – their "average kill bounty" statistic is reduced (brutal, right?).  Bounty is a number that slowly increases as you pick up powerups and blow up other ships, and has no upper limit.  A bounty of around 100 means you've been alive for maybe 5 or 10 minutes and are almost certainly powered up.

Today ships start at 0 bounty, but for a while in the early days ships actually started in "negative" bounty – something like -30.  Players developed their own… unique vocabulary to describe the various states of being in SubSpace, and this state of negative bounty was an especially common one, and had many words associated with it.  Low bounty ships were referred to as "negs" – shorthand for negative bounty.  The activity of murdering low bounty ships before they had powered up was referred to as "Negging."

And, in an instance of emergent language that never ceases to amaze me for its lack of sensitivity or foresight, the derogatory term attached to players who engaged frequently in this vile activity was... a "negger."

I loved SubSpace.  I loved the physics, and I love the precision of the gameplay, the tactile nature of the bouncing bullets and the amazing players who seemed to be able to get out of any situation simply by knowing which wall to bounce their ship off of and exactly when the fire off a repel. I joined squads, I played competitively, I designed maps for the game – and I adopted the vocabulary and conventions of the game without question.

There I was, minding my own business in the Chaos server (the giant free-for-all game mode), when some jerk decided to kill me before I powered up. I despised these "neg killers" as the scum of the earth, and personally thought it extremely important not to kill low-power ships.  I was a virtuous bounty hunter, only seeking out fights with equally powered or overpowered ships.

So naturally anyone who killed me while I was in a neg state was an ass. I called him out for neg killing using the accepted terminology... "negger."

I don't think my original assailant never responded. The person who did respond was someone currently on my randomly assigned team.  He said to my team...

Demo#1321 > Thrull is a racist

I was being accused of racism. I was shocked at first, but eventually reacted in the way that made the most sense to me at the time, in a game where 50% of the population wants to kill you and the other 50% wants to trash talk you so hard that you quit the game forever: I ignored him. I had developed, shall we say, thick skin.

He persisted.

Demo#1321 > Thrull why do you hate black people so much?
Thrull > what are you talking about?
Demo#1321 > what's your problem

The gears turned my head. Black people? Oh. Oh, right. Words that sound similar. However I never thought of that before?

I could fix this.  A simple explanation should do it, right?

Thrull > dude, a negger is someone who kills low bounty ships
Thrull > it's not a racial slur
Demo#1321 > yeah, sure.  racist

That didn't work.  Maybe he was really, really new and didn't know any of the terms yet?  This thought made me eager to prove myself to him -- prove that the community is not entirely full of racists, that not everyone is an asshole.  Maybe I could earn the game a new player!

Thrull > look, are you new?  let me help you out
Demo#1321 > go to hell

I had a brilliant idea. Obviously he must be a new player; he probably didn't know anything about how the game worked.  I would surprise him and show my goodwill by "attaching" to him -- basically a teleport allowed only between teammates.  I could then help him out and show him what a nice guy I was.  Problem solved!  Who cares if he gave permission or not?

So I attached.  He was at very low power, and in the middle of being chased down by another player -- a player committing the evil act I had called out before, a vile neg killer! What a perfect opportunity to illustrate his misunderstanding and show off my honorable nature.

It was close quarters combat, in a tunnel full of walls that cycled on and off randomly. I duked it out with the other player -- pew pew, kaboom -- and eventually came out victorious.

Unfortunately, there was a casualty. Thanks to a random wall cycling on, one of the bombs that I had fired had exploded a little prematurely, and my misguided charge, bouncing around wonton with no regard to his own safety, had blown up.

Oops.  Teamkill.

Demo#1321 > fuck you
Thrull > I'm really sorry, I was trying to help
Demo#1321 > you killed me because I'm black
Demo#1321 > racist
(Public channel) Demo#1321 > Thrull is a fucking racist

So far I had made things much worse. I was still convinced I can explain it to him, though, and I frantically began composing a full apology, a more detailed explanation, fully enunciating the history of bounty terminology and subspace culture.

In the middle of writing that paragraph of text into the chat bar, the game crashed.

I swore and logged back in quickly, immediately rewriting and firing off a shorter version of my lengthier explanation.

Thrull > look I'm really sorry you died but I was trying to help
Thrull > I'm not a racist, ask anyone, they'll tell you negging is a game thing and not a racist thing
Thrull > ships used to start out at negative bounty, negging means killing low bounty ships, and people that do it are called neggers
JohnRando > what are you talking about?

I blinked and looked at my team list.  Demo#1321 was nowhere to be found. He wasn't in the zone, or the server. He had quit the game.

I would never have a chance to fix the misunderstanding. Somewhere out there, someone would forever think that I was a racist.

Dejected, I explained to the random person in chat what I had been going on about.

Thrull > sorry, someone was calling me a racist for saying "negging"
Thrull > I was trying to explain it was a game term but he didn't get it
Thrull > I feel really bad
JohnRando > ha ha
JohnRando > hey, we were all black once

And that was that.  Demo#1321 did not return, and I felt genuinely terrible about this for a long time. Somewhere out there was someone who, because of my actions, got an incredibly negative impression of the community of this game. I hated myself for not being able to explain it and make him understand.

Was that even possible, though? How many times have I talked through someone online, unable to communicate with them because I can't see their body language, watch their expression change, hear the intonation of their voice?

What really started this mess, and what makes me think now that I was a complete idiot for not anticipating it, was using a word so close to a racial slur.  It was dumb to use it, and even dumber to try to convince someone else that it was legitimate. My perspective now suggests to me that only a community with a rich background of white privilege could come up with a term like "negger" and give it the validity of common vocabulary.  I was completely oblivious, yet complicit.  All I could think about was defending my status as an honorable player -- the idea that the term itself was a problem never even entered into my mind.

I continued to play the game for about four years after that, and I never saw that player again. I assume him and many others were driven away by the miasma of toxicity that you had to get through to actually find other players who didn't want to cuss you out and make you feel like crap. Something of a rite of passage, in that game. If you could take it, you could become one of us. It wasn't right; it was just the way things evolved in that particular game.

What eventually pulled me away from the game didn't have anything to do with the community. I had in fact developed strong bonds with several of the people who played, such strong bonds that a group of us moved to a new game together. That game was the first to 3D MMORPG… EverQuest.

Next time, the age of exploration returns in EverQuest: Like Father, Like Son.