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.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Anthology of Names: Gemstone III, Tale of the First Name

Gemstone III was a game released in 1996 and available through several popular online portals, including... America Online. Yeah, AOL. That brings back some memories. Within AOL's safe walls, which kept the unruly Internet at bay, there were a few online games, mostly with very pixelated graphics and simple gameplay.  Then there was Gemstone III, which had complex gameplay and... no graphics to speak of.  Here, let me show you... let's type "look" and hit return.

> look
[Town Square Central]
This is the heart of the main square of Wehnimer's Landing.  The impromptu shops of the bazaar are clustered around this central gathering place, where townsfolk, travelers, and adventurers meet to talk, conspire or raise expeditions to the far-flung reaches of Elanith.  At the north end, an old well, with moss-covered stones and a craggy roof, is shaded from the moonlight by a strong, robust tree.  The oak is tall and straight, and it is apparent that the roots run deep.  You also see some manna bread, the Eilyn disk, some ambrominas leaf, the Raissong disk, some aloeas stem, the Carene disk, a large acorn, a handful of white flower petals and some stone benches with some stuff on it.
Also here: Slavacchio, the body of Aeryell who is lying down, Bereg, Lamie, Eilyn, Suitcher who is sitting, Lord Mirlan, Idialiver, Harliquin, Lord Raissong, Grenklin who is lying down, Piriq who is sitting, Ladolets, Lady Faralai who is sitting, Oesia, Apprentice Caels, Carene, Angelique, Cancel
Obvious paths: northeast, east, southeast, southwest, west, northwest

Fully text.  A command prompt RPG, also known as a Text MUD (Multi-user Dungeon).  Perhaps the perfect game for someone who loves to read...

Quarillion, my first character, was born in the North, far from the bustling Wehnemir's Landing.  His biggest fear was slipping on the ice and cracking his skull on the trip south from Icemule Trace.  His biggest achievement was... hmm.  I don't think he accomplished that much. I think got to level 6 or 7, maybe overheard some players talking about important events once.  Ah, there was that time I screwed up his leveling process such that I threw an in-game tantrum the likes of which the world has never seen -- rolling around on the ground, sobbing, the works, all in text.  No one actually noticed, so I dusted myself off and decided to re-roll the exact same class (Ranger) for a fresh start in a new city.

Thus, Keyseth was born in the South, in Wehnemir's Landing.  His biggest fear was running out of resurrections from dying so much.  His greatest achievements were exploring places he probably shouldn't have and hanging out with folks who were likely best avoided.

Keyseth once went out of town armed with a sword and sandwich instead of a shield.  He was killed almost instantly by low level kobolds who knocked him down, stabbed him, and probably stole his lunch money. And his lunch.

Keyseth once joined a very exclusive organization, completing many quests to ascend the ranks.  He felt very accomplished, but then learned that everyone in the organization had been tricked and that the final quest basically said "Congrats, you're evil and totally damned now."

Keyseth once bummed around with a gang of player thieves.  They stole from everyone who passed by and passed the spoils out to the group. Keyseth felt a little ambivalent about this and said as much, so they stole back everything they had given him. And a tip for their trouble.

Keyseth once climbed a mountain, then rode down it.  The mountain was very tall, and at the top, there was a hole in the rock, filled with the sound of rushing water.  Players were invited to jump in. Clearly, this was suicide.

Keyseth jumped in the hole.  You only live several times, right?

The water-tunnel-slide that ensued was one of the most memorable experiences I had in Gemstone III.  It was a maze, a puzzle, a timing game where each fork and turn could mean a choice, and life or death hung on that choice.  Lean to turn. Lie low to avoid overhanging rocks ready to take your head off.  I spent hours navigating the tunnels, getting stuck in eddies, and avoiding decapitation.  Eventually I popped out into free fall -- a vast cavern spread out around me, filled with treasure on all sides, chests and ships and mountains of gold -- but I'm still falling, and there's no way to stop, and you realize halfway down that this is just there to tease you, a tantalizing vision of a goal you'll never reach.  Then, you're back in the slide and sucked down the drain, drenched and cold and rushing toward the end of the ride.

The amusement ride in the mountain taught me that Gemstone III's combination of the written word with active experience had a unique power over me.  My brain was so willing, so ready to conjure images to match the prose, that the "graphics" actually felt better than most games -- completely left to the imagination. 

When I finally finished the ride down the mountain, I took a deep breath and closed the game.  I had completed this experience on a Pentium 90 sitting in my family's living room.  Around me, my mom was vacuuming.  There was a fire in the fireplace.  Life moved on, completely oblivious to the experience I had just been through, unreal and transitory thing that it was. 

I felt that I had just been somewhere very far away, and that I was only now returning.  My family had no idea what I had just experienced. To them, I had just spent several hours glued to a screen watching text scroll past. To me, I had been to a distinct place, and seen something beautiful.  It was immaterial, in more ways than one -- those riches really were just out of reach, as there is no reward for completing the ride other than making it down the mountain alive.  No gold, no experience points, no progress.

And yet, somehow, this made what I had seen even more valuable.  For once it was not the reward structure that gave me such a sense of achievement, event contentedness.  It was that moment, falling through a bizarre room in the middle of the mountain, a little flash of beauty left behind by an anonymous writer who clearly loved this game.

I doubt I'll ever know who wrote it, but I want to say it anyway: thanks for that.  You made the game for me.

Up next, moving further into my teenage years, a truly wretched hive of scum and villainy... SubSpace: Arcade Asteroids & Angst.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Life Online: An Anthology of Names

You're sitting at your computer, staring at an empty text box on the screen. The cursor is blinking gently. You need to fill the box with something: a name. 

It could be your real name, although no one recommends that you actually use that on the Internet. It could be an acronym. It could be something fantastic, a persona. It could be random. It might not mean anything – you may discard this name in less time than it took you to generate it. Or, it might mean a lot. It might come to be attached to a great deal of memories, both your own and others. It might be a name known by many people in many different places, although they will likely never know the face behind it. No pressure.
What's in a name?

In one sense, in the era of avatars and screen names, the names an individual goes by are more and more a diverse and varied group, each separating distinct communities that know you by one or another of these aliases. For me, names are also a filing system. When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time online, and I adopted various names for various communities. Some names I spent more time creating than others, but I could never predict which names would stick, which would represent a long-term commitment either because of the people I met or because of my interest in the world attached to that name.

Over the next few posts, I'd like to tell a story about each of these names. Something that happened connected to that name, in that world.  Something like an anthology of aliases.

To serve as a table of context, let me start by spilling all of the names that I remember most keenly, and the games they were attached to: 

Gemstone III (Played 1996-1998)
(Text MUD, now known as Gemstone IV)
Quarillion - Ranger
Keyseth - Ranger
Guilds: none

SubSpace (Played 1997-2004)
(Asteroids-themed multiplayer game, now Subspace Continuum)
Squads: Pride, Dark Sun, BALLISTICS

EverQuest (Played 2000-2003)
(The original 3D MMORPG. The legend never dies.)
Daec - Druid
Talroke - Shadow Knight
Medisia - Warrior
Guilds: Hero, Realm of Ages

Final Fantasy XI (Played 2003-2004)
(MMORPG with Chocobos)
Zhaki - Dark Knight - Server: Phoenix
Guilds: Shirt Ninjas

World of Warcraft (Played 2004-2007)
(You probably know this game.  Also, census data!)
Denako - Rogue - Server: Feathermoon (RP)
Dracel - Warrior - Server: Spirestone (PvP)
Rashale - Hunter - Server: Emerald Dream (RP-PvP)
Guilds: Dracel's guild that I can't remember (Spirestone), Frostwolves (ED), Misćhief (ED)

My goals with this project are threefold:

First, for myself, to put down some of the experiences attached to these names so that I can remember them better. 

Second, for the reader, to provide a window into these worlds -- some long extinct -- along with a little entertainment. 

Thirdly and lastly, for anyone who knew me by any of these names who might be reading this, to say: hello again.  We may have shared time as friends, skirmished as enemies, or just passed each other by, but I'd like to tell you that it was real -- even if the world wasn't -- and I'm happy you remember it.

Next time, Story #1: Gemstone III, The Tale of the First Name

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What I'm Playing: Fight Clubs

Dark Souls has this thing, it's called a fight club.

It's technically not an official part of the game. It's an outgrowing of the organic multiplayer they have built-in, where it's primarily the players who decide how or even whether they encounter each other in the course of play.  Other players are generally meant to be antagonists – they "invade", appearing randomly in your game with the goal of killing you and setting your progress back for a reward.

However, other players can also be intentionally summoned in certain circumstances, to help or to hinder. One custom that developed was for a "host" player to summon many invading spirits at once, and sometimes, if the conditions are right, rather than the invading spirits piling on and killing the host, for a variety of reasons, the invaders might just decide to fight each other.

For the host's amusement, for sport, for fun, or to practice, these transitory groups – which completely lack any means of communication other than vague gestures such as pointing or waving – end up being some of the most interesting online interactions that I've ever had.  I had not known about fight clubs when starting out with Dark Souls 2, and yet I instinctually understood what was happening when I was first summoned as an invader and saw a pack of players all grouped around two combatants, watching them duke it out.

Enter the ring and face the possibility of losing, and being sent back to your world.  It's refinement through failure, repetition.  It's the mantra of "git gud" (get good), as Dark Souls slang phrases it.  But more than that, it's a way to develop an identity, and status.  Apart from streaming, fight clubs are one of the only ways to actually have your normally solitary player-vs-player conflicts observed by other players.  In addition, somehow the lack of text or voice communication options actually elevates this process, forcing you to interpret for yourself what others think of your skills and your style based only off of their movements and the gestures they perform.

Dark Souls has a lot to offer – it's basically a punishing Zelda game wrapped in the gothic aesthetic of Diablo 1 & 2.  Yet, despite the massive, beautiful, and dangerous world, what keeps me coming back to the game is the potential of these fleeting and strange encounters with other players -- players who will likely never meet me or each other again, who will never know each others' names, and who yet develop their own customs and etiquette and tricks based on this world and its rules.

Other than Dark Souls 2 & more recently Dark Souls 3, I've also been playing some games in a similar vein.  One of the major entries is For Honor, which I posted about previously.  I'm also eagerly anticipating a game called Absolver (beta starting soon), which seems to share a lot more with Dark Souls in terms of encouraging emergent player customs and interaction.

What these games have in common is that they rely heavily on precise timing and have a strong emphasis on physical momentum and melee combat.  They also leave a lot of room for bluffing, counter-moves, and reading opponents in player-vs-player combat.  They are great to play with a gamepad, and offer an extremely deep combat experience with a lot to learn and master. And, most importantly, they give you a lot of room to develop your own style, to express your personal way of playing, and to participate in an identity exchange, of sorts, with the players you meet.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Fictional Interlude: Ambassador


The baby's white bony wings unfold, mucus-shining, lined with the tines of naked feathers. Ridiculously small. She is otherwise human.

"What should we call her?" the mother asks.

The father is silent.

"She must have a name," she continues. "Let her be Sarah, after my mother."

The father nods slowly. "She takes after you."

She meets his eyes, then looks back at the baby. "She is beautiful.” She strokes the child's face, and the delicate wings. “A bridge between us.”

“Let us hope it is enough," he says.

She nods absently. She begins to sing to the child, a soft lullaby.

The sailor plucks a tune

A gull calls in the bay

Her harp is marked with runes

A zephyr starts to play

Sarah's footsteps echo across the steel deck. The sea wind puts goosebumps on her arms, which she hopes will stop her stomach from turning. 

"Ambassador Cygnus," calls a voice, casting out over the deck of the ship. "Ambassador Cygnus, to the bridge."

She listens to the feedback dissipate, the click of the microphone cutting out.  Then she turns and makes her way towards the bridge. Her back aches, she's seasick, and she dreads what she is about to be asked to do. Yet she remembers her mother's words: you will never perform under ideal circumstances.

The sailor listens closely

The sea is filled with sound

The strings are calling softly

Though no one is around

She ascends the steps to the bridge carefully, gripping the railing. The wings would be a wonderful help to balance, she thinks, but she is under orders. They are not to be displayed outside the bridge.

They ache. They long for movement, curled and imprisoned in the jacket of her uniform.

Through the door to the bridge, the dim light of digital readouts illuminate many faces, many eyes.  They are all on her. The expressions are hard to read.  Some hope, some fear.

Mostly fear, she thinks.

The captain approaches her, nods deferentially. "Are you ready?"

She nods. "As ready as I'm going to be."

He smiles awkwardly, watching her. "Are you sure you're feeling alright? We could put this off another few hours..."

"No. There's no point."

He nods, looking worried, and steps aside.

"I feel fine," she lies. "I'll be fine." She walks past him before he can reply, to the front of the bridge.

She sees the microphone, sitting, waiting for her.

Her heart thumps once as she walks toward it.  She forgets the lights, the faces, where she is. She knows what needs to happen, dreads it. She moves automatically. She undoes the buttons on her jacket. She is vaguely aware of people shifting away from her, giving room.

The last button undone, she lets the jacket drop, and the wings begin to spread slowly, unwinding like coiled springs.

The gull speaks to the sailor

The sailor hears the storm

The harp speaks to the jailer

That sleeps beyond the shore

The sound of the wings unfurling is almost deafening in the silence. A scraping, resonant, metallic sound. The sound of sandpaper on steel, of a bow being drawn, of an orchestra tuning.

The strings, so many strings, are drawn out of her back slowly, each pulled taut by one of the naked spikes lining her wings. The feeling is unpleasant, the vibration too deep, as if she is pulling herself inside out. It takes a moment, and the sound draws out, feeding the nausea in her stomach. She leans tips forward slightly, and quickly stops herself, one hand on the panel gripping too tightly.

She waits. Finally, wings fully extended, the sound of the drawing dissipates in a chromatic hum.  She takes a deep breath, then turns her head carefully. She meets the captain's eyes.

Looking more worried than before, he nods.

She turns back to the microphone. She is careful with her movements, is afraid of bumping into something, of falling over. She wonders if she could get back up. Wings aren't meant for rooms, she thinks.

She lifts the microphone slowly, licks her lips. She remembers her training. Set stance, mouth ajar.


Then she begins to sing.

The sea speaks up in laughter

The sailor asks for grace

The storm is chasing after

And each star hides its face

She finishes the last line of music, letting the sound stretch out. Ecstasy and exhaustion. She is bone tired, can still feel her insides shaking, her head throbbing from the hum. She wonders what it sounded like to anyone listening.

Eventually she remembers where she is, the people around her. On reflex, her wings fold gently back, soundlessly now. Once they are folded, she picks up her jacket and turns around. The eyes in the room avert quickly. She catches one set briefly, one of the soldiers, before he looks away.

Now it's their turn to forget she exists, absorbed in the monitors. Her work is done. She moves toward the hatch slowly, stumbling once.

The jailer now is woken

A hand pulls at the seam

The shroud of night is broken

The dark fades like a dream

"Thank you," the captain says quietly as she passes, without looking at her. She glances at him, sees a kind of reverie in his face. She keeps walking. There will be time for emotion, later, but now she has to get outside.

She stops outside the hatch at the top of steps, and the wind blows cold on her face. She's looking down at the water. She can't help but look anywhere else.  There are no stars, no sun, no moon to see, in any case.

The water is dark, rolling slowly far below the ship. She waits, and her heart beats faster. How long? They shouldn't need the monitors. They should be able to hear it.

There. A sound, low and distant, sonorous. Sarah feels her knees shake, begin to buckle, but holds herself up on the railing. The water is shimmering, then dappled as the sound peaks, as if rain were falling. The surface of the sea shines in one brief instant, reflecting the lights of the ship.

Finally, the sound fades. The speaker immediately clicks on. A voice, unable to fully mute its excitement, says: "Susurrus effect confirmed. Return to your stations."

Sarah watches the water for a long time, and listens to the waves pound the hull of the ship. Finally, she looks up at the sky. There are no clouds, no stars.  Just a black abyss.  It disorients her; she feels the world is tipping, but she does not look away.

"Was it enough?" she whispers. "Will you give them back?"