Saturday, February 28, 2009

Order, Control, and Gaming

Control. There are those people that like to have it, over themselves and the environment around them. There are others who could care less. This is one of the ways to look at the old Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 alignments of Lawful and Chaotic. One values order and control, the other sees them as unnecessary or even a hindrance.

And, in the story of .hack//Legend of the Twilight, it’s pretty obvious where the system administrators of the biggest MMO ever created fall. To quote, “What cannot be controlled must be deleted.” To be fair, it’s on some level an opinion shared by every single game designer and developer ever to make or run a game. Even the most basic games in real life have rules. Have a winner and a loser, and a set of regulations governing what can and cannot be done in the game.

Order and control are thus very important to games of any kind. It is the knowledge that the rules will be enforced that prevents a game from disintegrating. Who would play World of Warcraft if a high-level monster could just teleport into the low-level zones and wreak havoc, killing off all the low-level players that can’t fight back? It is the order present in the game world that allows it to function. That reassures players that low-level monsters are here, and higher-level ones won’t be found there.

And when that order, when that control, breaks down, it must be dealt with. If a player starts cheating to gain an advantage, they need to be removed; if a bug comes into the system, it needs to be fixed. This is a philosophy shared by both the administrators of “The World” in .hack// and the admins of World of Warcraft or any other MMO.

So then, it is clear that a Lawful alignment preserves the game and allows it to function freely and evenly for all players. But then, aren’t there some things that can’t or even shouldn’t be controlled? Surely it’s ridiculous to assume that everything can be brought under strict order, and even more so to think that that’s a good thing. Such is the Chaotic argument.

In today’s games, the systems and worlds are tightly controlled. There’s really not much chance of anything too odd happening. But in .hack//Legend of the Twilight, “The World” is a massive MMO, with far too many details to easily monitor… far too many details to keep control of. And maybe in a world like that one, it’s better to leave some things be.

An element that cannot be controlled is not automatically evil or unbalancing. It can be, but the default position need not be the above quote. Maybe it’s better to let the world change. If something isn’t harmful or dangerous, then why does a lack of control need to mean destruction?

It’s not just the massive world of .hack// that can’t be entirely controlled. In fact, there are elements of chaos in any game, even in our own tightly regulated games. There will be a lack of balance in any system we create. We aren’t good enough to create a perfectly balanced, perfectly fair game world; what’s more, we never will be. So we might as well recognize that some things need not be controlled.

The dichotomy, the divisions between Lawful and Chaotic opinions, can be seen in modern games. In the MMO EVE Online, there are rules to protect the newer players. Certain systems are under the protection of the law, and any act of aggression in those systems will merit a response from the police forces of the world. What’s more, surviving their attack is considered an exploit by the game’s designers. Again, we see that tight control over what can and cannot be done.

But. Unlike in some games, there are no restrictions on who can be attacked; many games with a Player vs. Player element give new players immunity to this warfare as protection. Nothing of the sort exists in EVE, only the police forces that, like in the real world, can’t respond immediately to a threat. And so, chaos works its way back in. EVE players can always be attacked, anywhere and at any time. There will be consequences for the attacker, but that may not save the victim any grief.

And in the systems where the law has no authority? That’s where the players come in. There are several major player-created alliances in EVE, and they’ve managed to fill in the hole that the designers left behind. The systems that the designers left chaotic and uncontrolled? The players have sovereignty over them now, and they can do whatever they like there.

The designers of EVE could have created a police state. They could have created a sprawling empire of powerful police forces that control every known system, lockouts on targeting systems that prevent the targeting of newer or weaker players, and a regimented system of growth and development that would have guided a player up the ranks. They could have controlled everything in sight, and removed any trace of chaos from the game.

But they would have destroyed the fun of the game in the process. By backing off, by creating a system that combines law and chaos, they created an incredibly compelling system. They control what needs to be controlled, to allow players some sense of security, and they leave the rest chaotic.

There’s a message in there somewhere. Control and order are important, to be sure. Without them, no one could live without being hindered by the random whims of others. And order is far more often than not designed for a good purpose. But also, not everything can be controlled. And sometimes, one needs to just let things run unchecked. At times, life needs to be kept on track through order and control. And at other times, life needs to be allowed to run free in a celebration of chaos.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dreams of the Enemy

So, who else doesn’t really like all of the generic evil villains out there these days? For a lot of games, it’s enough just to have a villain that is simply evil. Not morally gray, not well intentioned, just evil. Same goes for movies… as far as one can tell, Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars is evil for the hell of it. Really, what does he want? Because “power for its own sake” is about the only answer visible.

Building a massive planet-crushing Death Star and destroying a civilian pacifist planet is another excellent example of what I’m talking about. What point was there to that, beyond just being evil for the hell of it? Try this plotline: Empire captures princess, puts her in Star Destroyer prison cells. Rescue team saves princess, but Empire plants tracking device on their ship.

About the only differences are: the Empire has a lot less ill will (you know, that whole not-blowing-up-a-planet deal) and a lot more Star Destroyers, since they have a lot more resources to spare. The other problem, though, is that it’s less dramatic, which is why in Star Wars the villains needed to be over-the-top; why they needed to be purely evil for its own sake.

It gets old after a while, though. Why doesn’t Team Rocket from Pokémon go into the mechanized construction business? With the number of robots they’ve built for the sake of screwing with Ash and friends, they clearly have the aptitude for it. And they wouldn’t have to go blasting off all the time. I guess it’s just not evil enough (or funny enough) for them to make an honest living and send money and Pokémon to Giovanni that way.

It certainly seems in a few different cases that there’s no internally consistent reason for the villains to act the way they do. The demands of producing an interesting movie or TV show, the demands of drama or comic relief, are the reasons for creating villains that act in these ways. But treating those stories as worlds in their own respect forces the view that they’re acting evil for the hell of it. That the villains have no goals beyond being the antagonists; that the dreams of the enemy are non-existent. And people don’t usually act that way.

So it’s awfully refreshing once in a while to get a series like Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A’s. As the series opens, the antagonists seem pretty clearly marked. You know, those guys over there that are the guardians of the Book of Darkness. That cursed book that has never been used for anything other than destruction. That tome that will gain limitless power once all 666 pages have been completed. Frankly, at first, it’s a little bit of a cliché storm. (link to TVTropes)

But, much like the first season does, it doesn’t remain clichéd for long. The motivations of the “villains” are laid bare before the season is half over; the dreams of the enemy are apparent to at least the viewer, if not the protagonists. And the master of the Book of Darkness isn’t the textbook villain lusting after power; likewise, the guardians aren’t just the textbook mini-boss squad that seems to gain nothing from being evil. Oh no.

In fact, they’re about as far from that as it’s possible to be. In a refreshing turn from the standard “bwa ha ha I’m evil and I like it” villain, the master of the Book Of Darkness specifically ordered the guardians not to go out and complete the book. She hardly qualifies as an antagonist, and even if one did try to fit her into that category, she’s definitely not seeking “power after power, ceasing only in death,” as Hobbes put it. (Yeah, I can reference political theory too.)

But then, why are the guardians completing the Book? Clearly they must be more typical villains, right? Well, actually… no. Actually, their leader accepted that order fully and completely. Until they learned that the Book of Darkness was killing its master through a curse, one that would lose effect if the Book was completed. Yes, that’s right: they’re acting as they are to save their master’s life.

What does this mean? People aren’t usually mindless drones that are only supposed to act as the antagonist for some greater story, and it’s nice to see a story that reflects that fact. Although they do exist, it’s the rare person that really does act evil for the hell of it. In the world that we live in, everyone has some kind of dream or goal. Even one’s enemy or opponent has their own wishes and desires. Sometimes, those are even noble ones.

It’s all too easy to look at an opponent and dismiss them as nothing more than an object. Nothing more than an enemy to defeat, even to kill. But that’s not what people are like. When war breaks out, the dead are reduced to numbers and the enemy is reduced to just some monolithic force that must be defeated in battle. It’s all too easy to lose sight of the people behind all of those numbers and uniforms.

Note, I’m not saying that war as a whole is wrong because of this. Unfortunately, sometimes force is the only solution to an opponent who carries a destructive dream. But there must be that awareness of the opponent’s status as a human being. And that awareness is one of the things that will help to ensure that we go no farther than we must.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Protection and Destruction

The line between the two is incredibly thin. All too often, the effort to protect something requires that something else be destroyed. This is most obviously seen in war, when armies do battle. Usually with both sides claiming justice; all claiming that their goal is to protect. And all the while, more destruction rains down. Sometimes, it reaches even what’s being protected; the old joke “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” is a classic for a reason.

But then, where can the line be drawn? Just yesterday, I watched the eleventh Pokémon movie, Giratina and the Sky Warrior. (It’s on again tomorrow, February 15th, at 1900 hours. Although I will spoil a good deal of the plot, so if you want to watch it, I’d read this after you do so.) And interestingly enough, the story of a reversed world and its role had plenty to say about the line between destruction and protection.

The villain of this tale was a man named Zero. Who knows why someone would actually be called by that name, but whatever. And his goal was to take control of the Reverse World by basically taking power from the Reverse World’s sole inhabitant, Giratina. Sacrificing that legendary Pokémon in the process, of course.

But he of course had his noble motives. You see, the fight between Dialga and Palkia from the tenth movie (I didn’t know the Pokémon movies had this much continuity…) had put strain on space-time, and the Reverse World was relieving this strain. The results of this process were fairly severely polluting the Reverse World. And Zero billed himself as its defender, working to prevent the real world from polluting the Reverse World any further.

The strain is visible. Protection, or destruction? Or both? For Zero’s plan, a fairly major amount of destruction was called for. To protect the Reverse World, the real world would have to be destroyed. To even get there with the power to do anything, Giratina would have to be destroyed. In this specific case, it’s fairly obvious where Zero falls. In actually watching the movie, the sheer madness is obvious more than any desire to protect.

Likewise, the heroes are also fairly apparent. But still, the line between protection and destruction exists. By trying to stop Zero’s efforts, Ash and his friends (along with the titular Sky Warrior, Shaymin) were basically saying that the pollution of the Reverse World was acceptable. Along with, of course, doing indescribable amounts of damage to Zero’s Pokémon and assorted gadgetry.

So why is it that the destruction endorsed by the heroes is acceptable while the destruction of the villain isn’t? What is it about their actions that makes them better than Zero? There are a number of answers to that question.

Some philosophies dictate that the massive amount of destruction that Zero would have caused versus the smaller amounts that the heroes caused in the end justify their actions. That purely weighing the different sides of the balance show how Zero’s actions were worth stopping. Likewise, Zero was protecting an abandoned world in which only he would live while the heroes protected the real world and all of its people. That’s a perfectly valid answer to that question.

Personally, though, I prefer the one rooted in intent. Zero’s intent wasn’t really to protect. Sure, he tried to claim that he was protecting the Reverse World. And it’s certainly even true that his actions would have stopped the pollution of the Reverse World. But that’s not what he wanted. He wanted to forcibly take power from Giratina, killing it in the process. He wanted to rule over the Reverse World and destroy the real one. He wanted to destroy.

While the heroes? The heroes at all points were protecting something. Ash and his friends spent much of the movie trying to protect Shaymin, or at least accompanying it when it didn’t really need protection. They put no small amount of effort into protecting the real world, of course. Even more, they knew that it was sadly the natural order of things for the Reverse World to react as it did to the strain on space-time. It can even be said that they were trying to protect the natural order of things. They wanted to protect.

And when Giratina was at Zero’s mercy, Ash, Dawn, Brock, and Shaymin put no small amount of effort into protecting it: a legendary Pokémon that they had actually fought earlier in the movie; one that certainly had no real desire to help them at the time. Shaymin had been terrified of Giratina earlier in the movie; now, Shaymin nearly exhausted itself helping Giratina.

Intent and the will to carry it out can change the future. As such, intent must be where morality is rooted. There are those with the desire to destroy. They can claim that they’re protecting something: Hitler can say that he was protecting the German people; Zero can argue that he was protecting the Reverse World. But intent is what matters: Hitler wanted to rule the European world, Zero wanted to rule the Reverse World.

And if the heroes have to engage in destruction to stop them, then so be it. If the Allied Nations have to engage in World War II to protect the free world; if Ash and Shaymin have to accept the pollution of the Reverse World, then so be it. The line is indeed thin between destruction and protection. And in so many cases, both will be seen at once.

But it can be determined who is in the right. Destruction may be all too common, on all sides of a conflict. And in many of those conflicts, the intent of each side is paramount. Whether to claim protection in order to destroy, or carry out destruction in order to protect… I know which side I fall on. I will make no excuses. I will destroy if I must. But I will do no more than I must, and I will remember why I act in that way.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Need for Honest Effort

In some cases, I know that I’m going to make a two-part post before I even start writing. Not so this time; I realized about two minutes ago that I could extend what I said last week. (Well, two minutes before I started writing, anyway.) And really, it’s more that I realized I could use similar titles than a realization that I had more to say.

Regardless. Last week I discussed some of the rewards that I found in the effort I put into Pokémon. But there’s more than that in what video games have to say about effort and hard work, at least for me. You see, like many activities, video games offer rewards to dedicated players.

It’s visible all over: the amount of effort required to even clear a lot of games is almost enough right there. The idea of an “achievement”, first seen in Xbox titles, has spread all over the community of Internet flash games, even spawning a parody game (Achievement Unlocked, produced by Armor Games, link to that has nothing but such achievements. Even after clearing a game, usually there’s even more to do for 100% completion (link to TVTropes). And unsurprisingly, these kinds of rewards for reaching goals, even if those rewards are nothing but the satisfaction of success, do encourage the kind of motivation and effort that can translate into all areas of life.

And an excellent example of one game in which this applies more than any other is Dance Dance Revolution. Dance Dance Revolution (or just DDR) is a kind of rhythm game where the challenge is to respond to a song being played. Predictably, having a good sense of rhythm is unendingly helpful when playing these games. DDR in particular is a dancing game, in which the player has to step on arrows on the ground in response to the arrows on the screen. The game, like most rhythm games, thus requires a special controller to play. In this case, a pad with four arrows on it.

The difficulty ranges from really easy to insanely hard. The songs with difficulty levels around one or two are usually easy enough for anyone to handle, while songs up at eight or nine usually cause people unfamiliar with DDR to stop and stare. The legendary level ten songs are usually impossible for just about anyone, even experienced players. The odd thing about all of that, though, is that surprisingly enough, it requires no small amount of practice and effort to become any better at the game.

I can barely even remember when I first tried DDR. I know it was in an arcade somewhere, and I seem to recall being immensely proud of myself after doing a really easy song. That lasted about until I finished, and the person waiting for the arcade machine got up and played a song that was much, much harder than anything I had attempted. Better yet, it seemed like every time I went to the arcade, there was a large crowd of skilled players around the machine, and I didn’t dare interrupt them.

Because of this, I wasn’t really getting any practice. I wasn’t improving significantly at all. Now, I certainly could have just written it off as unimportant and done something else. Certainly, there are plenty of people in the world who write off video games in general as unimportant. But that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to get better at DDR; I harbored my dream of being able to one day walk up to such a crowd and force my way in on the basis of my skill. And I knew that if I wanted that, I had to practice.

I could have backed down overall. I certainly could have just thought about that dream and satisfy myself with those thoughts. But that wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. Setting a goal or having a dream is only the first step. It’s a first step that’s meaningless without the willpower and effort to make it happen. I could have saved my money and my time for other pursuits. But all of life is making choices and allocating resources to the goals and dreams that we possess. And in this case, I chose to put my effort into realizing this dream.

In addition to the arcade versions, there are DDR games sold for home consoles as well. So I went out and got the only available DDR game for the only major console I had at the time: DDR Mario Mix for the Nintendo Gamecube. And I practiced and (slowly) improved. Unknowingly, I had bought a DDR game that was easier than most other available games; I can’t say whether or not this affected my development.

I eventually got to the point where I wasn’t being challenged anymore by any of the songs on that game. By this time, we had an Xbox as well (still in the previous generation), so the obvious solution was to pick up one of the DDR games for that system. After getting DDR Ultramix 3 as a gift, my improvement continued.

Two more recent events have shown the culmination of all of this effort. My old high school held a talent show every year, and by the time that my senior year rolled around, I was confident enough in my ability (and encouraged by all of my friends) to play DDR for the crowd. I chose what is known as a “boss song”, one of the insanely difficult songs that on the hardest difficulties are almost always difficulty level ten. I did not play at that level, instead going for the level nine difficulty just below that.

It went about as well as could be expected. I missed all of three steps in a lightning fast song that demands quite a lot in terms of physical ability. And I led off the talent show in style as the first act; according to some of my friends in the audience, I drew at least a partial standing ovation. I had gained the respect and admiration of a crowd far larger than I had ever dreamed of performing for.

Much later, at a club meeting for video game players at Brandeis (yeah, CGX shout out!), two highly skilled club members had brought a DDR game on the computer (not technically called such, but it might as well have been the same thing) that several members were enjoying immensely, including myself. And with a massive selection of songs from any number of different DDR games, I had a lot to choose from.

Near the end of the meeting, I found the song that I had played for the talent show in the list, a song called The Legend of MAX. And I decided that, since I had improved in the intervening months, it couldn’t hurt to try it on its highest difficulty. Yet again, I stood in front of a crowd of people and demonstrated my skill. One cleared level ten song later, I had finally reached that goal that I had set so long ago.

And now? Now I can do things like, well, the video below.

That’s a level ten song on DDR SuperNova for the PS2, called Xepher. (Obviously, I was the one dancing in that video.) I’ve cleared six level ten songs since then, and I’m still practicing. The nature of songs of this difficulty means that really, one has to individually break down each one. Unlike at the lower difficulties, where the ability to clear one level nine or level eight song usually translates into the ability to clear most of them, level ten songs usually require a lot of individual practice before they become possible.

It took me about a year to get from being a complete novice to being able to handle level eight or nine songs. And it took me about another year of practice after that to finally clear a level ten song. For the truly motivated, video games like Dance Dance Revolution aren’t just a waste of time; they’re a skill in their own right, one that like any other requires time and effort (that is to say, practice) to master.

And over the years that I improved, there were so many chances for me to turn back. Either before I got any DDR game, or before I got Ultramix 3, or just at any time to get tired and quit. But nothing in life works that way. Not Dance Dance Revolution, not my classes, not my extracurricular activities, nor anything else. If one has a dream, one has to put in the effort and the will to make that happen. And that’s a lesson that if nothing else is reinforced by the challenges presented by the video games that I play.