Sunday, September 9, 2012

Minerva's Den and Alan Turing

Bioshock 2
System: Xbox 360
Developer: 2K Games
NA Release: February 2010

Part of what makes BioShock such an engaging series is the way it incorporates real-world concepts and philosophies into its ruined utopian fishbowl. The world is a steampunk-like fantasy, but the very human ideas behind its creation and operation resonate with this vague sense of reality—giving Rapture a “what if” kind of feeling that not many other games come close to or even intend to.

So through what better means can one tie in the theories of mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing?

Alan Turing
Turing's work with technology and his powerful role in history almost feel tailor-made for the world of BioShock. During World War II, Turing and his team worked for Britain under top secret conditions, creating methods and machines to crack the Germans' complex Enigma cipher and turning the tides of war intelligence toward the Allies' favor. For Rapture, which canon says was established in the '40s, Turing's accomplishments would fit in well among the man-made marvels upon which the underwater city's purposes and ideals were inspired.

“Minerva's Den,” a DLC add-on story to BioShock 2, ferries in what may be Turing's most well-known contribution to computer science. The story centers around Charles Milton Porter, a fictional character who worked with Turing in besting the Enigma. Unfortunately, he returns to London after his work to find his wife, Pearl, died in the bombings. A broken man, he ends up in Rapture and creates “The Thinker,” a supercomputer that serves multiple purposes, the most important being the regulation of life functions in the city.

Porter sees another purpose with the computing power he has under his control and thinks to the ideas of his former partner in Britain—specifically, the Turing Test. Turing was fascinated with the concept that a computer could be programmed to “think” like a human. He considered a test in which both a real human and a computer would respond to questions. If another human could not identify which responses came from the computer, it would be considered able to “think” equally to a living being.

C. M. Porter
You might be able to see where this is going. Porter believes he can beat the Turing test, and with this ability play a sort of futuristic Pygmalion, recreating the essence of his late wife. The events surrounding this and what direction the writers take it are something I will leave to be discovered, but I will say it is quite amazing. The character of Porter and the voice acting that brings him to life are superb.

People are still working with artificial intelligence, trying to create a true “thinking” machine, and many are disappointed with the progress so far. But what we will want to do with such programmed personalities and how our human natures will react with them are things that may need more consideration. The ways the world of BioShock brings cold, calculated logic and the human element into constant collision with each other lends itself surprisingly well toward such philosophical thought.

One other way in which Turing and Rapture have some odd similarity: in 1952, it was found that Turing was homosexual, a crime in Britain at that time. He chose “treatment” over incarceration, and was subjected to large injections of synthetic estrogen to kill his libido, chemically castrating him. People who had different ideologies were criminalized and “processed” in Rapture, too.

Of course, at the end of the day, Rapture is the rendering of programmed computers. What happened to Turing was the actions of man.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Home, Ladies and Tigers

System: PC (available on Steam)
Developer: Benjamin Rivers
NA Release: June 2012

“Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?”
The Lady, or the Tiger?

In 1882, writer Frank R. Stockton penned “The Lady, or the Tiger?” a short story in which a young man faced the trial of choosing from two doors. Behind one door was a beautiful lady, with whom he would win immediate marriage. Behind the other door was a tiger of inconsequential gender or appearance, who would win a meal of the young man.

Stockton makes great effort to lay out all the details surrounding the young man's situation. We learn of the loving relationship with the kingdom's princess that brought him there in the first place, how only that same princess has found out the secret of the doors, and the internal dilemma she faces in telling her love which door to choose. And as she covertly points him toward a door, the tale climaxes... by not climaxing. Stockton does not tie up his story. He leaves it in the hands of the reader to take the evidence presented and choose what happened on his or her own, ensuring his story would be read by frustrated high school English classes for all of eternity.

Now, only 130 years later, we get the same style of open-ended mystery in a nifty interactive form!

Retro graphics hearken back to old adventure games and add focus to the narrative.
Home, by Benjamin Rivers, gives players control of a man who wakes up in an unfamiliar house with little memory of how he came to be there and a dead body to contemplate. By exploring in classic adventure game style, the narrative is revealed through the man's first-person perspective, as if he's relating the events to an unknown listener. Even choices to grab items don't come in typical “Take paper?” fashion but more, “I wasn't sure what use this scrap of paper would be to me. Did I take it anyway?” It's almost like the listener is also a collaborator in some way, verifying whether the main character did or not do certain things.

This style is easy to get used to and starts to become a second thought—that is, until the questions become a lot more influential. It soon becomes clear that you need to take the sum of your experiences in the game, including all you chose to do and not do, to determine yourself what actually happens. It's “The Lady, or the Tiger?”, but instead of taking the side of the cutest person in class to argue how things might have gone one way or the other, you're there in the princess's seat, making the ultimate choice based on your perspectives on logic and human nature.

Not the ultimate choice.
And even then you're still not going to understand exactly what happened, leaving so much to think about and debate well after you've closed out the game. Rivers has offered a place for players to contribute their own interpretations, and it's just as much a part of the game, really.

Stockton received a lot of mail from readers demanding what the “real” ending to his story was, and Rivers is probably going to get his share of curious requests as well. Me? I doubt whether either ever had a definitive ending in mind—in fact, I would find it supremely gratifying if I knew they didn't. Crafting these kinds of tales take a lot of effort, but the ultimate intention is external: it is placing all your circumstantial evidence in another's hands and seeing what they find out about themselves by letting their minds and hearts fight over it.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Dust and Forgotten Time

Dust: An Elysian Tail
System: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Developer: Humble Hearts
NA Release: August 2012

“For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.” 
– Hebrews 8:12, The Bible (KJV)

“And stop worrying about who you are! You're Dust! You hear me? I don't care who you were, I don't even care if you used to work with that General guy, because you're DUST now!” 
– Fidget, Dust: An Elysian Tail

Amnesia, while sometimes considered cliché, can be a very effective mechanic in games. A playable character with little or no memories starts the game on a similar level as the player: aware of a certain potential as you figure out what the heck you're doing.

Games relying on the loss or manipulation of memories are tasked with weaving the factor into an effective plot to keep it from clunking along as an obvious gimmick. Some titles, such as BioShock, manage to do this quite well. Dust: An Elysian Tail does it so well that to consider it as a gimmick almost feels insulting. Not only is the theme told around the titular character compellingly developed, it made me think of memories and the past in a light I had never considered: that dispelling them can sometimes be a gift.

The past holds importance, of course. It is a well from which we can draw knowledge brought through experience and recall mistakes we intend not to experience again. However, it is also possible to carry so much of the past with us that it turns from a guide to a burden.

When Dust wakes up unable to recall who he was, his identities and decisions lie entirely in the present. His only personal resources are his observations of the world around him and how they resonate within his core—as much a shattered mystery as that is. His only other influences are the opinions of his two companions, a talking sword and a chatty, bat-winged fluffball named Fidget.

Using these points, Dust ultimately chooses a righteous path, helping a world he only knows needs someone with the skills he possesses. And yet, it becomes clear early on that there is some form of darkness residing in his past and part of who he was. Would he have been unable to choose to jump into good had he awoken with his knowledge? Technically, no. That's impossible. We have free will to make personal choices that can not be tangibly controlled by what has already happened.

But still, if he had remembered...

This is the haunting nature of the past. The same mistakes and regrets we strive to learn from are also the ones that try to seep into our identities in the present. They breed doubts, fears and hesitation into choices that could otherwise be plainly made. Is this enough to atone for what I've done? Will they take me seriously? Am I a hypocrite? How would failing affect the future me?

We take events we can not change and fetter them to ourselves at the only time we are able to have any effect on the world whatsoever. And as significant as it feels to us to lay our lives out this way, it's a fool's endeavor. I know I've spent enough time milling about pieces of my past, putting them together and imagining I know how my life would be now if I had made one choice over another and lamenting this non-existent path. Of course, my real present never changes this way. If anything, it just makes me overly cautious and paralyzed when it comes time to make my next choices.

It's a hard habit to break, however. Even after Dust blazes a trail across the world of Elysian Tail, throwing his own life in danger to save many others, coming into the full scope of what he did in the past brings him his moment of greatest uncertainty and an instant dive into the mire of redemption. How could he have expected to redeem himself so quickly, he asks himself, as if his new deeds have to bury his old sins before they can count. It takes Fidget to snap him out of his way of thinking, basically screaming at him that the only thing that matters now... is now.

In a world that weighs everything against itself, it may feel flippant or even wrong to abandon our pasts “unatoned” or “unresolved” in order to give the present the concentration it deserves, but as Dust demonstrates, we are needed when we can make real change. True repentance is not “making up” for past wrongs, but turning your back on them toward a new path. True forgiveness is not deciding someone has compensated for their offenses, but treating them as though they had never committed them in the first place.

As we move on, we will have regrets. We will fail even when we thought we did what we should have done. We will even willingly choose wrong. That's all part of our identities as human beings we will never escape. Learn what you can, then leave it and move on. While we may not awake in a beautiful meadow every time, we still have the same gift that was bestowed upon Dust. Every second that slips into the past resets our chance to choose the right thing and become a new person.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Katawa Shoujo and Comfort Zones

Katawa Shoujo
System: PC
Developer: Four Leaf Studios
NA Release: January 2012

I admit this one took a while to get to.

When I learned about the game from a superb article on Hardcore Gaming 101 I was immediately on board. "This sounds groundbreaking!" I thought. "I must experience it!"

I downloaded the game, which is free, but then it just sat on my computer. I would glance at it occasionally, but go on to play something else instead. It's apparently much easier to grab the gun than to pull the trigger, and my initial excitement to play the game had stagnated enough that other thoughts began to creep in, not the least of which was how was I going to describe this to people when they asked about it.

"Oh, I'm playing this visual-novel-slash-dating-sim, but the twist is it's set at a school for the disabled! Wait, I know that sounds kind of hinky, but it's being treated seriously and--well, yes, there are sex scenes, but I'm telling you that the anonymous people from 4chan who made this game have really thought it through and--look, it's getting hard to talk to you with how deep this hole is gotten. Just let me keep digging and I'll be right back up with you in a jiffy!"

Curiosity eventually won out, however, and I'm glad it did. For 27 ways to Tuesday this sort of concept could have gone wrong, Katawa Shoujo does a lot of things right.

Those of you who know me may be all, "Ooh, I bet he went for the bubbly looking one with pink hair!" Well, you'd be wrong. I considered many other factors when making my decision. Also, she's not a persuable character.
The main concern with producing a story where your main characters have disabilities--or really any other sort of "minority" status--is the level of focus on which to approach them. Treat subjects too delicately and it almost feels like a form of discrimination in itself. Be too militant and you risk chasing your audience away with the Shame Stick. The latter was another reason I was initially hesitant about this game. I've seen enough shows and movies where the "lesson" comes in the form of the main character making an ass of him or herself and realizing how awful they've been to see others in a certain light. It may be the way some people really do learn, but it makes me horribly uneasy as a viewer. Heck, I always hated it when the Trix Rabbit was made to feel bad for just wanting some stupid cereal. There's a level of "live and learn" we all have to go through in life and the mistakes we make, but they're not always so blatant and exposed.

Katawa Shoujo, thankfully, seems to understand this and offers what I thought to be a very down-to-earth approach to the subject matter. The "playable" character, Hisao, finds himself having to attend his senior year at Yamaku High School and comes into contact with the five potential love interests, as well as supporting characters. The disabilities of these characters, which range from blindness and deafness to not possessing certain limbs, are never ignored yet never seem to fully define them. A strong personality has been built for each girl and the condition each faces physically only seems to be one part of what defines them. In my first playthrough, I ended up going down Emi's story arc not because she had prosthetic legs, but because she had promised to help Hisao with a running program that would help the heart condition he faces.

Emi Ibarazaki: The Fastest Thing on No Legs. The fact that it's she who calls herself that and laughs while doing so is a very liberating theme of this story.
Giving Hisao a disability of his own also strengthens the story by giving him a sense of vulnerability that is rarer in primary characters. Because his arrhythmia was discovered only recently, he lacks the time the others have had to come to terms with their disabilities. There are naturally some nuances he needs to figure out at this special school (for example, when communicating with a deaf and mute person when you don't know sign language, do you look at them or their interpreter when you talk?), but one of the biggest initial revelations he has to make is that he doesn't have to worry so much about everyone else's disabilities. "It's only a big deal if you make it one," a teacher confides with him, and most everyone gets along just fine as they are. In fact, at times it feels other characters are more concerned with how Hisao is adjusting to the changes in his own life. It's a brilliantly empathic way of drawing the player into this world without feeling like they're treading in socially taboo territory.

And, well, speaking of taboo, I guess I should address the adult content. As I said before, there are sex scenes with nudity and acts and... positions. That you see. It's difficult to say just how "hardcore" these are as my sensibilities tend to lie more on the prudish side. Maybe they're like an illustrated Fifty Shades of Grey? Well, I'm guessing about that. I wouldn't really know, haha! You can turn them off if you wish, skipping them entirely, and if you feel they would bother you I heavily suggest you do so because the warm and fascinatingly written story is still very much worth the experience. I guess you could say the scenes do fit into the story relatively well, though, if you feel that sort of thing happens a lot. They're pretty jarring when they start to happen, at least to me, but I guess the fact I find them way more uncomfortable than the the theme of disabilities is a big plus, so, uh...

Gah, where's my shovel? Just give Katawa Shoujo a try, remember to turn off the adult scenes if you want to, and maybe I'll have reached China by the time you're done.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Offroad Extreme and Being Special

Offroad Extreme! Special Edition
System: Nintendo Wii
Developer: Data Design Interactive
NA Release: November 2007

[NOTE: This post is part of the first Review a Bad Game Day. Witness others endure the horrors of gaming's mistakes at]

Mr. Rogers made it a point to say that everyone is special, and I'm certainly not going to argue with the legend. I will posit, however, that “special” does not always mean a grand thing. The Titanic was a special voyage, Ed Wood was a special director and Offroad Extreme! Special Edition is certainly a special gaming experience.

Even the cars look depressed to be in this game.

From what I've been able to find, Offroad Extreme! is a “special edition” because it's a port of a 2004 PS2 game updated with Wii remote tilt controls—for some reason at the expense of the original button controls. This is highly unfortunate as the motion controls are outright horrendous and almost seem selectively sensitive, choosing not to overreact to your tilting only when you're heading straight toward a yawning chasm. It's difficult to see why they couldn't have included both control schemes, but I like to imagine the discussion went something like this:

LACKEYS: Boss, we really need to put the button controls back in the game.
BOSS: But the motion controls are what make it special!
LACKEYS: That is technically true, sir. But, well, the motion controls are terrible!
BOSS: You're not understanding me, here. If we return the button controls, we give players the option to use them, yes?
BOSS: And if the motion controls are bad, players will use the button controls instead, yes?
BOSS: But the motion controls are what make it special!

The sad part is that Offroad Extreme! feels so lazily constructed as to have so little merit to deserve the moniker “special”... that it somehow manages to go full circle and madly becomes “special” again. A few more ways in which the game shines:

  • Your rival cars sounding like bees in a dryer at the starting line, which is about the only time you'll ever hear them as they eventually leave you to your wiggly-driving stupor—oh, except for the one or three that always relentlessly slam into you at the beginning and pin you mindlessly to the wall. It's like the developers could make AI for these cars, so they just programmed a brick onto their accelerators.
  • The apparent love of using a rain effect over the dull, brown, N64-quality courses, even though you never actually see the rain hit the ground, the sky often looks blue and sparsely clouded, and it does not stop raining when you enter a cave.
  • The way the announcer tells you to “Start your engines!” with just enough of a threatening tone as though he knows you're thinking of running.

  • How the camera will reverse angle when you try to back up from yet another slam into the wall but wont always return to facing frontward when you hit the gas again, often turning the simplest of maneuvers into that underground tunnel cart scene from Austin Powers.
  • The collectable dollar signs that litter the tracks like a poor rapper's Geocities page and are all worth exactly one dollar. What did you get for fighting busted controls, crappy physics and broken cameras for three laps? $27! Extreme!
  • If you take too much damage, which is nigh guaranteed, your vehicle explodes into an cheaply overlayed fireball animation of Birdemic-caliber laughability—twice. I can't actually cite this one as a fault, though. I could never find myself able to change one poorly rendered piece of this glory.

It is bad enough to face the cheap, unplayable pile of shame that is Offroad Extreme! Special Edition, but it's especially egregious to know this was all part of the now defunct Data Design Interactive's (DDI) business model. Wanting to take advantage of the growing family and casual markets, the company squeezed out as many abominations of gaming as it could, sacrificing any semblance of quality in an apparent attempt to take advantage of novice gamers' ignorance. They even copied and pasted large swaths of code in what they called their GODS engine to speed the process, making their games figuratively inbred.

But do you know what the worst part of this sordid legacy is for me? It's not that DDI helped pox the reputation of the Wii as a shovelware system, nor even the fact a bunch of kids got screwed over on birthdays and Christmases by well-meaning family members who were suckered into buying malfunctioning dreck. Those are certainly bad, but what outright haunts me is that Mr. Rogers was right: everyone is special, dammit, and there could have been some specially talented designers working for DDI.

We laugh at and pan shovelware, and that's often healthy. But there could've been people just trying to find a foothold to get noticed who ended up strapped down by the paltry budgets and push-it-out-the-door timetables of a company that was in too much of a hurry to milk another buck out of an unsuspecting grandma to take the time to make sure IT STOPS RAINING IN CAVES. These people's time and talents could have been wasted, and now they have pangs of hesitation and regret every time they think of writing “Data Design Interactive” on their resumes.

It is my great hope that, if this rings true for anyone, they are working at a place where the true meaning of “special” is known and acknowledged.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Earthbound and Getting the Girl

System: SNES
Developers: HAL Laboratory, Ape, Nintendo
NA Release: June 1995

[CAUTION: This post contains mild spoilers to the endings of EarthBound and the movie The Big Year. One you should really play if you haven’t. The other is just wasting time that could be spent playing the first.]

I sat down recently to watch The Big Year and came to some surprising revelations:

1. If you want to make a stale, plodding movie about birdwatching, then by gosh you can! It doesn’t even matter what fantastic comedic talent those evil Hollywood executives will try to foist upon you, you have the God-given right to underutilize them and ride your anemic, beige starmobile all the way to the Dullard Nebula. Yeah, America!

2. Even boring bird movies will make me think of EarthBound.  

Admittedly, though, even I’m surprised how this thought train circled around. Enduring The Big Year not only called me back once again to the most iconic game of my childhood, but it finally brought into focus this one tiny part that always stuck in my mind.

Upon defeating the final enemy in EarthBound, the credits don’t start rolling. You actually get the chance to walk around and explore the whole world to see what changes have happened as a result of your journey. Your other two companions, Jeff and Poo, go off on their own, leaving you to escort Paula, your first teammate and the only girl, home.

So the game is winding down, it’s just you and her, and you finally bring her back to her doorstep. The pixellated air is dripping with the potential of a big scene, and she says this:

Thank you for escorting me home.
...There was something I wanted to tell you, but I’ve forgotten it.
I’m sure I’ll remember by the time I see you again.
Well, I guess this is it...
...So long
...See ya

And of course Ness just stands there like a dummy in true RPG main character form, but it further adds to the awkwardness. Even my naive, 12-year-old self felt something was off about the whole thing, so when Ruffini the Dog, possessed by the spirit of the game designer, provided an address to send questions and comments (have I told you I love this game?), I actually wrote in asking what it was Paula had meant to say, thinking I might’ve missed some sort of plot point. Things aren’t supposed to just drop off in these sorts of situations, right?

Sixteen years later, I’m watching Jack Black’s character in The Big Year going on his own quest to spot the most species of bird. Stuck in a job he hates and with little money, he makes sacrifices and maxes out credit cards to pursue his dream.

He falls just short of being the top birdwatcher in the end, but still tells his friend Steve Martin that they came out winners. And indeed he did. He became a seasoned traveler, visiting sites many will never even know existed. Not only that, but he finally earned the respect of his father, who initially thought he was wasting his life by not pursuing a lucrative career. It’s a very touching scene--or it would have been if they had made any allusion that this is what Black’s character was talking about.

No, this entire time he’s making eyes at his new girlfriend, played by That Woman from Parks and Recreation. She’s introduced and developed for about 5 minutes of the movie, then conveniently dumped out of the plot by the revelation she already has a boyfriend. We see nothing of her until 10 minutes before the movie ends, when she calls Black to say she and Nameless Other Guy broke up.

I am aware this sort of thing happens in many other movies, but perhaps it was my desperate attempt to suck whatever marrow of significance I could from this movie that made it strike a chord with me this time. What a crock! There was so much else Black’s character could have emphasized, his father being arguably the most important, yet they employed some arbitrary love interest as if all his other accomplishments weren’t enough--as though we can’t completely accept happy endings otherwise.

And that’s when it all came into focus. In EarthBound, a relationship between Ness and Paula was never really developed. Really, there was little more than the occasional NPC saying they looked like a cute couple and Paula’s parents keeping an eye on you. It just feels like they should be together because we’ve come to believe that has to happen; that to completely find oneself means finding love too, and that’s just not right. Ideally, that should come after one is confident and set in who they are. It can be a side effect of the process, perhaps, but it is not the necessity we want it to be.

Shigesato Itoi, writer and director of EarthBound, opened the entire world at the end as though he wanted players to realize the breadth of Ness’s influence and the effects those places had on him. It’s cool to think that Ness and Paula could end up together, but to have emphasized a relationship in the end would have detracted from so much more that the game and its characters were about.

So thank you, Mr. Itoi, for not taking the easy road. Because of your thoughtfulness, I remember more of your story after nearly two decades than that of a movie I watched less than a week ago.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Super Meat Boy and the Days

Super Meat Boy
System: Xbox 360
Developer: Team Meat
NA Release: October 2010

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

  And how should I presume?
--T. S. Eliot "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" 

Super Meat Boy is a crash course in balls-to-the-wall berzerkerism and trying again in spite of the odds. Dying feels somewhere between 99-99.9% of this game; something it lovingly reminds you of by playing all of your attempts on a stage at once when you finally beat it. Scores of little, hopping, optimistic meat beings are put through the grinders, exploding in a mix tape of squishy demises until your one success remains at the end.

Are these ballets of carnage a cheap shot at your lack of skills or a badge honoring your perseverance? It probably depends on what kind of player you are, but thinking about it recently made me surprisingly philosophical for such a corporeal game.

Imagine every day of your life plays out at the same time, just like a replay of Super Meat Boy. What would we see? Now certainly we won't start in the same spot every time, depending on moving to new places, waking up with no clue where you are and the name “Chris” ambiguously scrawled on a napkin in your underwear, etc., but odds are there will be a lot of overlap. Some events, like your morning commute, might look like a blur of yous. The various beds of your night might look like a deranged Tetris block of yous for 7-8 hours of each period, if you're lucky.

Is that depressing to think about? Again, it might depend on what kind of player you are. Personally, it's bittersweet. For each representation of us on these replays, there's a near infinite number of routes he or she could have gone, mostly depending on our desire to break routine and break from our imposed obligations. Some of those choices could have brought us incredible gains. Others, who knows? They could've put us in the path of a drunk driver, or put many of our next days out on the street.

Because when that one “you” of each of us blinks out, it's all over. Maybe it will be in a bed at a nursing home. Maybe it will be on that same blurred line we took successfully to work so many days. You can play the statistics but it's never possible to know for sure.

We're the opposite of Meat Boy and many other video game characters. While they expend their lives endlessly for the pursuit of that one time at the goal, we nurse ourselves along in hope of reaching the goal as many times as we can. Each new day we receive, in essence, is an extra life—our reward for surviving yesterday's level. But if we don't live with that Meat Boy berzerkerism sometimes, are we truly winning?