Stairwell Philosophy – Happy Holidays

The holiday season is fast upon us. For some it means a man in a red suit. For some it means a boy in a manger. For some it means free toys. It means a lot of things to a lot of people. Yet the more I think about it, the more it seems like it means the same thing to everyone, in a way.

Roundabouts the 20th or 21st of December comes the winter solstice, the point when the Earth’s orbit and rotation and whatnot make for the longest night of the year. It’s cold and it may yet get colder, but tomorrow will be brighter as the new year dawns. Most folks fit their various celebrations in a space stretching from late November through early January with a wide variety of reasons for the season.

Christmas needs little introduction, especially in the States where its so widespread as to be celebrated even by other religions and secular folks. It’s a time to gather for friends food and fellowship, and as with most holidays it’s a good time to give gifts. For Christians it’s actually a two-parter. The four preceeding weeks are the season of Advent, a time to meditate on waiting through the long dark night for the light at the end of the tunnel, symbolic of the Jewish peoples’ long wait and preparation for a savior to re-open the way to heaven. Following right after is the big day of course, starting off twelve days of Christmas to celebrate light returning to the world.

Speaking as a Christian I think it’s a neat little parallel that Jesus preached goodwill to people from every walk of life, and the modern Christmas season seems to have a little something from many of the big name solstice celebrations. Biblical historians place Jesus’ birth sometime in the summer, but it’s celebrated around the solstice both for the above reasons and to make for an easier fit with people wanting to convert.

Rather than weigh you down with a big history lesson I’m just gonna give you the cliffnotes version. Wikipedia’s right next door for the more detailed stuff. And we’re off.

Roughly two and a half millenia ago Zoroastrianism was one of the biggest religions in the world. Around solstice time they celebrated the rebirth of the sun and the victory of Ahura Mazda (the sun and other good guys) over Ahriman (darkness, evil, etc.). 7th century Japan had a similar gig with sun goddess Amaterasu being coaxed out of her cave to restore sunlight to the world. (Bet you want to take another look at Prince of Persia ’08 and Okami now.)

In the 3rd century Roman Empire held a solstice tradition called Sol Invictus (undefeated sun), broadly covering numerous similar religious figures like the above including Elah-Gabal (Syrian), Mithras (Persian), and later Jesus. Sounds like a pretty cool idea to me, having everyone come together to each celebrate the sun’s return in their own way.

Just a little further back we have Saturnalia, choc full of gift-giving and revelry for the elite and the common man alike. Here we also saw the tradition of decorating a tree, though it wasn’t until it melded with Germanic traditions that the trees were brought indoors. Said tradition of Yule inspired more than a few modern Christmas traditions such as burning a big yule log in the fireplace, having a great big yule boar (a.k.a. Christmas ham), and singing yuletide carols (which is what’s going on when people go a-wassailing).

Pagan and wiccan festivals often revolve around revering life, love, and the natural world. From these origins we have the practices of hanging festive wreathes and decking the halls with boughs of holly. The holly in the hall, the wreath on the door, and the evergreen tree in (or out in front of) the house all have something in common; no matter how long and cold and dark the night gets life keeps on going.

It’s increasingly common knowledge that very little of what we think of as modern Christmas tradition is unique to Christianity. I for one think maybe that’s not such a bad thing. A symbol can belong to many people at once and hold a unique special meaning for every one of them.

Let’s make this the last year people complain about the ‘war on Christmas’. Let’s celebrate our common traditions and join in fellowship with our fellow man, all the world waiting for the sunrise. Decorate a tree, hang a wreath, bake a big ham, swap gifts, and enjoy some fellowship via your winter holiday of choice. If you haven’t got one of your own find a friend who does and join in; can’t go wrong with friends fun and food.

Whatever your reason for the season, however you and yours want to celebrate it, happy holidays from the Paladin’s Post.

Stairwell Philosophy – Easy Mode or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love No-Fail

They don’t make games like they used to. Back in the day you’d see the first quarter of a game about a million times and the rest only if you were lucky (or had enough time to get a good gaming zen going). We ran out of lives and got kicked back to the beginning of the whole game and we hit start and got right back in there to try again. It was the way of things and it was good.

But then came games with a new way of handling difficulty. Games with no ‘game over’ screen. Games where they just hand you the ending if you keep playing long enough. In some cases the game will effectively play itself and you just watch it like a movie. Where has the challenge gone?

Thing is, back in the day there was basically only one type of gamer to appeal to. Everyone had their genre tastes but it was pretty easy to make a game with universal appeal in a universe so small. Plus there were other good reasons to build a nice steep hill to victory. Arcade games don’t make good bank if the player can win it all on a single quarter, and stretching gameplay out with a few hours of game over screens made console game prices a little easier to justify.

Every so often you need to step back and take a look at why you do what you do. Does brutal unforgiving difficulty make this game more fun? Does it help draw you into the narrative? Does it serve some artistic purpose?

An easier difficulty setting can certainly be handy for the older gaming crowd. I for one usually play on the normal difficulty (assuming it’ll be the most balanced of the selections), but I’ll turn it down to easy if I just want to see the story or know I won’t have a lot of free time anytime soon. As real-life responsibilities build up over time I find I’d rather sacrifice some of the challenge in return for getting to see two or three levels tonight rather than playing one stage over and over and maybe having to play the same part again tomorrow night.

Another case for dialing back the difficulty of a game is accessability. Nintendo blazed a rather profitable trail with the Wii by making games with a much lower barrier to entry than was common to gaming at the time. Yet I think it’s a mistake to assume accessability and difficulty are automatically opposing forces.

Your mileage may vary, but for my part I like my difficulty best when it requires me to think. I enjoy comprehensible rules and systems, especially when an understanding of them allows one to achieve victory through superior tactics. By contrast I tend to lose interest after awhile in games whose challenge is predominately in execution, when the goal and method are quite clear and the difficulty is in performing the required actions with sufficient speed and precision. I do enjoy a good reflex challenge now and then (I have two drawers full of the games that coined the term ‘Nintendo Hard’), but I tire of them when it’s nothing but.

You can arguably have a bit of both in games like Kirby’s Epic Yarn and the various descendants of Lego Star Wars. There’s virtually no barrier to hacking your way through all of the game’s content and seeing the big finale. If you like to get all the extra shinies it’s gonna take a little more work. L.A. Noire approaches interrogations in a similar way. If you totally bugger the investigation the story will still muddle through, but if you’re dilligent in clue-hunting and good at reading people you get a better score and a more satisfying narrative.  Rock Band and Guitar Hero also straddle the line (as referenced in the title): both provide great execution-based challenges, but if you just want to rock out with your friends you can flip on the no-fail and not worry about getting kicked offstage if someone’s not getting the groove.

One might even say the same of Prince of Persia ’08, the game that inspired this ramble. Ubisoft has often toyed with weaving a game-over into the narrative. In the first Assassin’s Creed you got ‘desynchronized’ if you sucked too much, and the Prince in Sands of Time had to start his story over on occasion if he misremembered one of the hundreds of alternate timelines where he fell to his death. In both cases when the player fails to complete the game’s challenges it’s explained in such a way that the narrative can logically continue (as opposed to most games where you just die and go back to the last checkpoint because that’s how it’s always been done).

For those not in the know, in Prince of Persia ’08 there is (almost) no game over screen. Early on in the game you team up with a sidekick character who generally fixes things with magic. If you’re about to fall to your death due to flubbing a jumping puzzle sequence she teleports you to safety. Likewise if you’re fighting a boss and about to die she blasts it back and bamfs you out of the melee, though this gives it a chance to regenerate a big chunk of its health.

I’ve heard complaints that the game is too easy because you can’t lose. What’s actually going on is that failure is redefined.  There’s more than a few faults keeping this PoP from standing tall amongst its brethren, but in my book this new method of handling difficulty isn’t one of them.  It’s true that if you set the controller down the game will go on an endless cycle of the boss nearly killing you and the sidekick rescuing you for all eternity, but look at it another way.

Method a) Fight a boss down to 10% health, make a few too many mistakes, die, loading screen, title screen, select load game, loading screen, select proper save file, longer loading screen, try again from the last checkpoint when the boss was at 75% health.

Method b) Fight a boss down to 10% health, make a few too many mistakes, sidekick bamfs you to safety, boss recharges to 75% health, get back in there.

You may notice one of these methods has you able to try again after a wait of maybe 3-5 seconds. The other makes you wait half a minute, maybe a full minute or two inbetween attempts. Time spent looking at loading screens and menus and reminding yourself that you’re faffing about with an electronic toy and not actually experiencing a thrilling adventure about space marines or wizards or whatever. And that’s if you’re lucky and the developers were kind with checkpoint placement. If not you’ll also have to spend who knows how long running through preceeding jumping puzzles or re-watching cutscenes or driving around town listening to repeated dialogue or whatever.

Older and wiser heads have gone into great detail at how it’s far easier to learn something you can keep trying at right away than to have to successfully compelete other tasks first, especially unrelated ones. Imagine for example you wanted to learn to play the trombone, but every time you wanted to practice it you had to go pass your driver’s ed class first. And then watch a music video that might be about trombone players, or might not. And sometimes sit staring at the trombone case for a while. Something like that.

To wrap things up, I’m hoping we’ll see more of this sort of experimentation in the future. By recognizing the differing applications of difficulty and accessibility we can create games that pose the kind of challenges that make old gamers and new want to press start to continue.

Stairwell Philosophy – Indie games and sleep deprivation

New post will be just a little longer in coming.  I recently upgraded to a new laptop so a good bit of my time has been spent transferring files and making everything all shiny.  So in the meantime, here’s something I once hammered out at three in the morning after playing fl0w for the first time.

 

There’s something about being up at 3 in the morning that makes random normal stuff seem far more deep than it really is.  There exists a game called flOw (available online as a free flash game if one googles about) in which you play as some manner of flagellate creature consuming ameboas and other microscopic organisms to grow stronger.  It’s an enjoyable game requiring good reflexes while also being a calming experience.  At 3am, it’s also a philosophical experience.
You begin in the pond, a creature so small.  Floating about lazily, enjoying the simple joy of existance.  Then you discover that by eating these little bits you start to get bigger.  More and more and you develop a longer form and a graceful glide.  As you explore and grow you find a new bit that is not like the other, and it pulls you inside.

It’s darker here, farther from the world you knew.  The bits remain, but there are many new faces.  And these are not content to let you just come have a nibble.  They bite back.  For the first time you know fear, predator becomes prey, and these new creatures chase you where once you chased all.  But they are not immune.  They can strike you but you can also strike them.  Hunter and hunted.  You grow, adapt, and press on.

Deeper still.  You have learned their habits and though they come in greater numbers you find with your speed and agility you can take them all on.  Curious shapes float in the haze below and you dive deeper still into unknown territory.  In these darker places sleeping giants lie, though upon your arrival they sleep no longer.  It is gargantuan!  Monstrous!  This beast is like no other you’ve faced before and once more you find yourself fleeing through the shadowy depths, the colossal creature close behind.

Desperately you evade, swooping, swishing, trying to stay alive as it nips at your heels.  But then, just as it seems the turn was cut a hair too short and your fate lies in its jaws, a peculiar thing happens.  You find its weak point.  The giant bleeds.  And what can be bled can be slain.  With newfound bravado you turn to face the tyrant, now putting him to flight as you swoop and dive and strike, felling the beast.
With each portal you draw deeper and deeper into the depths.  Your form is magnificent, a graceful winged creature.  Where once you were but a single nipping mote you are now a shining winged serpent, and all fall before you, growing ever stronger.  Then you enter the final portal to find…

Yourself

In the deepest darkest depth of this journey lies another just like you, same form, same strengths, same weaknesses.  You have only a moment to wonder why and then he is upon you.  Brother against brother you twist and turn, engaging in a battle of wits and skills and stamina.  Each strike strengthens one and weakens the other.  Many times one or the other appears to be nearing victory, only to fall victim to pride and find himself suddenly surrendering motes to his foe.

Finally with one last fell swoop you take his final mote.  You are victorious.  You are complete.  You are the new master of the deep.  Slowly the camera begins to pan back, drawing ever upwards over the domains you have mastered, rising to reveal something new…

Gaming at 3am is fun.

Stairwell Philosophy – The Conflict of Superman

Many of my fellow nerds will be prepared to disagree with this article based solely on the title. Superheroes come in a tremendous variety of forms with varying powers and personalities, but when chances are the first one that comes to mind when you think of the genre is a flying man with invulnerability, super-human strength, and a flowing cape. However a criticism often leveled at the Man of Tomorrow (and a problem often facing said character’s writers) is that it’s rather difficult to create a challenge for a fellow who could sleep through a building falling on him and frequently solves his problems by hurling them into the sun.

Aside from occasional trouble with the supernatural, his primary hurdle is a bit of troublesome green rock whenever the writers want to futz with his powers in an attempt to give him a challenge that can’t be resolved via punching. In short, the main argument against Big Blue is that he lacks interesting conflict because he’s too capable. Nothing can hurt him, he can go anywhere and do anything, and basically the question is rarely will he succeed but how will he go about it. I’ve often gotten bored with stories where the protagonist or antagonist is just too good at everything, so why am I a Superman fan? Because I find that the conflict is not if, but how, and furthermore why.

I should preface this by saying that my primary exposure to Superman (and superheroes in general) is from various TV shows. Though I’d love to delve deep into comics I simply don’t have the finances nor the storage space for a decent collection beyond a relatively tiny collection of graphic novels (Watchmen, Red Son, Dark Knight Returns, etc.) I was big on Superfriends back in the day, goofy though it was, but my primary resource for superhero goodness was and is Bruce Timm’s DCAU. Just about the whole batch are top-shelf entertainment, and most of the new animated movies are pretty good.

So I don’t know if they make a bigger deal about it in the comics beyond some internal monologues, and it’s kind of subtle at times in the shows, but I find Superman to be most interesting when he has to figure out how to apply himself to a problem and if he should be interfering at all. It’s the old dragon/tiger conflict; he fears doing too little as well as doing too much.

Oftentimes he’ll find one or more parties trying to exploit his powers for their own ends, requiring him to spend most of the episode just figuring out who the bad guys are lest he punch the wrong face. Sometimes he may even refuse to intervene at all, adhering to his strict moral code. Precisely because he has so much power he fears and avoids accepting a higher station than ‘protector of the people’, going so far as personally give longtime ally Batman a supply of kryptonite to use in case he gets overzealous. He could rule the world as a benevolent protector and force everyone to play nice, but he’d rather just keep people safe and give them the chance to reform on their own. This notion is brought forth boldface in the alternate continuity ‘what-if’ story Red Son, in which the Last Son of Krypton lands in Soviet Russia instead of Smallville. Raised by the locals with local customs he comes to a contrasting conclusion; he sees the suffering of his countrymen and reasons that someone with the power to fix everything ought to do just that.

Kal-El’s conflict is physical as well as intellectual. Once he’s figured out what needs punching he generally can’t just go all out. A decent left hook more than the tiniest fraction of his strength would pop a purse-snatcher’s head like a sock full of party snaps (so when you think about it he basically has to go gently nudging criminals around). He often attempts to catch incoming bullets rather than letting them just bounce off because the ricochets might hit bystanders. He can’t even relax when smashing robots (and everyone loves smashing robots) because slugging away at them full-force would send shrapnel flying everywhere. This was actually one of the few bits of fleeting fun I had with the overall terrible Superman Returns tie-in video game when I had to try to avoid destroying the city during a super-powered brawl with Bizarro.

We see this a bit in Justice League/Justice League Unlimited. Early on the writers had a tendancy to have the Man of Steel get Worf’d, knocking him around whenever they wanted to highlight a new big bad and say ‘uh oh now it’s serious, even Superman’s getting roughed up’. His apparent power level and fluctuating capabilities were eventually summed up quite nicely in the following clip from JLU.

Imagine what it might be like to live in Superman’s world of cardboard. With superhuman strength, just typing this post would be like working with a keyboard made of eggshells. Handling actual eggs would be even more troublesome. An errant sneeze would take a wall off hour house, and angrily pounding on your car horn would drive your steering wheel through the front of your car like a nail. And then there’s the whole ‘man of steel, woman of kleenex’ issue. The explanation given in the comics is that Superman has an extremely precise level of control over all of his bodily functions (even the normally involuntary ones). It’s easy to look at that and say well there’s still no conflict because all he has the control to avoid problems. But it’s not just that he can control himself; he has to control himself every minute of every day. In a fashion, the conflict of Superman is a supercharged version of the conflict of being big.

Maybe I’m the only one on this track but I think I identify with Superman more than Batman because of this parallel. I’m not quite colossal, but I’m tall enough that I very rarely see people taller than myself. When you’re big, applying your weight to something (intentionally or carelessly) is pretty likely to involve something either moved out of your way or broken. In my youth I was actually a fairly scrawny little kid with my share of bullies to avoid. Near as I can figure an unusually high metabolism with an appetite to match teamed up, and a decade or so later I was somewhat enormous. As the years went by I soon came to realize that it was generally no longer admissable for me to lose my temper for any reason.

Socially, it tends to make people nervous when someone a head taller than them goes about in a grumbly mood. A regular-size person in a bad mood is usually just annoying, but a large-size person in a bad mood seems dangerous. Physically, stomping about or getting rough on inanimate objects after a bad day just isn’t feasible anymore. There’s a sizeable dent in my bedroom door because one time I pushed kind of too hard to close it. Not even angrily slamming it, just by accidentally leaning slightly too hard on it while closing it. Given where my head was in my adolescent years I’m quite glad for my family, my faith, and later martial arts to keep me refined and conscientious. Kind of like how Superman owes his ‘Boy Scout’ morals to his Smallville upbringing, come to think of it.

So that’s what I dig about Superman. Big Blue shows that being big doesn’t necessarily mean you have to solve everything with direct force right from the get-go. Having all the strength in the world does you no good without finding the proper application. Great power, responsibility, etc.

Stairwell Philosophy – Symbols

In recent gaming news Microsoft wielded the banhammer upon gamers using swastikas in their logos, sparking some discussions about symbols and freedom of expression and whatnot, and reminding me of a topic I used for a bible study at martial arts class awhile back.

What is a symbol?  It can be a source of pride and power for those who believe in it, or cause for disdain or even anger for those who disagree with it.  It may be created with one meaning in mind and then be bestowed and/or burdened with many more, complimentary or contradictory.  In some ways a symbol is just an inanimate object with no real power beyond what people choose to attribute to it, yet at the same time everyone can think of some point in their lives when they were inspired, disgusted, saddened, emboldened, or otherwise moved by a symbol.

The world is fair teeming with symbols, efficient communication at its best (usually).  A family crest tells a snapshot of your lineage with an artistic flair.  Back in the day military units prominently displayed easily visible emblems to ensure people weren’t shooting their own men.  A memorable company logo slapped on hats and t-shirts can turn fans of your products into walking advertisements.  (I recall once hearing of a study warning that children quizzed were more able to identify ten corporate logos than they could identify ten common types of plants, to which I thought that I’d have an easier time identifying plants if they grew in the shape of their names, but I digress). Jewlery such as earrings, pendants, rings, watches and others are often given as gifts to symbolize a bond between people.  Tattoo artists can engrave the symbols that define you right into your skin.  And then there’s that grand old flag.

Until moonvertising catches on, a flag is arguably one of the mightiest ways to wield a symbol.  A symbol you wear can usually be hidden and then taken back out later when it’s convenient, and tends to only be visible to whoever’s right by you.  To use a flag properly you have to run it up a flagpole and let it fly high in the wind where everyone can see it.  People will come who disagree with your flag and will want to show their disagreement by taking down your flag because to attack your symbol is to symbolically attack what the symbol stands for.  Flags are serious business.

Though technically not a flag, there’s a flag-like-object-related scene in the movie Kingdom of Heaven.  At one point Balian is leading a suicide charge with a handful of crusaders to defend a small city from an overwhelmingly massive saracen force.  When it looks like the dwindling survivors are done for, a gleam of light is seen far in the distance.  Across the boiling sands, a great golden glowing cross is seen to rise from the desert, looming towards the battlefield.  As it draws closer it’s revealed to be an actual tremendous gold-plated cross carried to herald Jerusalem’s army.

When that glow first appeared in the distance I was wondering what exactly was going on, since the movie had been toying a bit already with whether or not divine intervention was afoot.  Even knowing it was just a big construct of wood and gold plating, any christian in the crusaders’ position would surely be emboldened by the sight of a huge shining cross on the field.  After all the original meaning of the Christian cross was as a symbol of triumph over even the most dire trials, and additionally of phoenix-like rebirth. Prior to Christianity the cross was a symbol of failure and suffering, being one of the worst ways to be killed generally reserved for only the most horrible criminals (and the origin of the word ‘excruciating’). To a Christian it means ‘give me the worst you’ve got, I’ll come back with the best.’

Some folks who protested the Xbox Live swastika ban suggest that some folks may find other symbols such as the cross offensive, and indeed it’s not something that’s appreciated everywhere you go.  I avoided the aforementioned movie for quite awhile because I thought it was a pro-crusades movie (in actuality it’s quite an interesting story on the nature of faith and moral ambiguity, provided you pick up the director’s cut so they have time to tell it properly).  As for our ‘modern’ world, there’s still far too many places where people kill each other for practicing the ‘wrong’ religion.

And I’m not just talking about Christian missionaries who face a very real threat of horrible painful death while they go about trying to help earthquake survivors or assemble makeshift hospitals. ‘Conversion by the sword’ thankfully isn’t standard procedure anymore, but a lot of folks would quite logically find the cross offensive when they see people displaying crosses being overly pushy with their views or throwing stones at ‘nonbelievers’ or making statements from public office that non-christians shouldn’t be considered American citizens. I can already hear someone in the audience shouting ‘no true scotsman’ but dagnabit I wish people would stop using symbols I like while they’re going about being tremendous jerks.

So, how about that swastika. While it’s a safe bet that the folks who want to toss the crooked cross around in an FPS inbetween teabagging and homophobia are aren’t really in it to reform public perceptions of the swastika (or anything else, for that matter), there are people who really do want to see the symbol gradually shed of its negative connotations. Like the ski mask, its origins are rather more benign than its modern associations.

In original sanskrit the word svastika roughly means something auspicious or quite lucky, not unlike having a four-leaf clover on a pendant or hat. Like many great memorable symbols it’s easily identifiable and simple to recreate. It goes well with artistic decoration because it can easily be used in a large repeating pattern, and seems to be found in a plethora of early civilizations worldwide. The vaguely-circular nature made it popular with eastern philosophies that frequently refrenced reincarnation and the cyclic nature of the universe (life and death, day and night, seasons, tides, breathing, etc.). It was also frequently used as a symbol of strong forces of nature, referred to in western civilizations as a sun cross or thunder cross. Even some ancient native american tribes have been found to have used it in the past with similar symbolism. Being a symbol for the best and most auspicious powers of the universe it seemed a natural fit when someone needed a symbol around which the aryan ‘master race’ could rally. This might not have been so bad if all they wanted to do was lay claim to their own personal “we’re awesome and everyone else can bite it” logo, but then they went off and tried to take over the world and things just went to pot.

Nowadays the swastika is of course a good deal less popular in the western world. In Germany displaying the swastika in any form is understandably illegal, and jokingly asking if anyone’s seen Kyle while demonstrating about how tall he is can get you up to three years in prison. In America the symbol as well as the word ‘nazi’ are popularly slapped upon anything folks want to mark as unambiguously evil, especially in our entertainment. The long reign of the WW2 FPS games (which is thankfully coming to an end) went on longer than the actual war they glorified. It’s also a popular choice for folks who want to quickly and efficiently offend as many people as possible, spray painting it on walls or tattooing it on their faces to show how much they hate society or something.

As for the matter of the bans, agree or disagree the fact is Microsoft is legally in the right on this one.  It’s easy to forget that Xbox Live is private property, not public.  You’re a guest in their house.  If you were hosting a LAN party and you felt someone was being a goof you’d be in your right to ask them to either knock it off or depart from your house. Having a swastika on your gamertag or sprayed on the wall during a deathmatch is sorely lacking in the context and open dialogue you’d need to actually get people to not dislike the swastika. There’s better ways. Modern practicioners of Buddhism and Hinduism still use the swastika with its original benign intentions, and as religions go they’re some of the most laid-back easy-going peaceful people you’ll find around the world. If not for the nazis mucking it up you’ve gotta admit it would be a pretty cool symbol to hang on a pendant or draw on your notebook when english class gets boring.

I’d now like to make a semi-clumsy segue back to the matter of swastikas in entertainment, particularly American entertainment. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds features the titular Basterds hunting down those nasty nazis inbetween the traditional Tarantino fare of top-class character-driven storytelling. I don’t know if Tarantino intended this or not, but I also found it to be an interesting wielding of symbolism and characterization that I’m now going to use to close out this ramble.

In most shows a quick way to make it clear who we’re not supposed to root for is to give one team nazi-like qualities. If you see folks marching about the streets in shiny-booted formation, dressing in matching colorless uniforms in large groups, or calling themselves ‘stormtroopers’, it’s a safe bet that these are the guys the plucky heroes will have to overcome by the third act. So much the better if you have actual nazis in your story; WW2-era German military uniforms are all the exposition you need to know that the folks visitng the farmer’s house in the opening scene are up to no good. And while the commercials seem to imply that the movie is all about the Basterds on a non-stop action hero rampage agains the nazi hordes and Hitler is more or less played by Cobra Commander (which isn’t too far removed from the truth depending on who you ask), Tarantino also does something with the nazis that I found to be both innovative and compelling; he made them human.

A majority of the protagonists spend the movie trying to take down the third reich as is all well and good, but one of said protagonists is a young nazi marksman dealing with suddenly being a famous war hero complete with a movie deal. Over the course of the movie he wavers between being proud of fighting for what he believes in and being dismayed by having footage of him killing people being put up on the silver screen as entertainment. There’s also a scene in a bar roughly midway through the show where some German soldiers are having a drink and celebrating because one among them has just recently become a father. They share stories and play pub games and laugh together and for a little while you can almost forget that these folks are part of an oppressive regime that brutally and systematically murdered millions of people. The movie almost seems sadistic in its characterization, one moment having you cheer on the Basterds as they carve swastikas into the foreheads of captured nazis to force them to wear the mark of their chosen allegiance for the rest of their lives, the next filling you with grief for the newborn son whose father won’t be coming home because he was killed by a ragtag band of jewish commandos.

The point I’m gradually circling like an indecisive shark is that a symbol can be chosen for one meaning and later declared to have many more, but the most effective factor defining any given symbol is the sort of people who rally behind it. When you hold up a symbol you’re saying in shorthand “I believe in the things that I believe this symbol stands for.” What you might not consider is that what you’re also saying to others is “I believe in the things you believe this symbol stands for.” There’s a point I like to bring up for my CCD class around Easter time that for our Easter Vigil mass we gather outside and light the big pascal candle, whose flame is kept lit in the sanctuary all year round. Everyone gathers around the pascal candle with small handheld candles, and the flame is spread from one candle to the next and shared amongst the group as a metaphor for the way we can share salvation with each other. That little flame can keep your hands warm and help you find your feet on a cold dark night, and if you share it carefully you can help others do the same. By contrast if you jam your flame in people’s faces with little or no explanation and then take offense when they decline your further offerings you may need to rethink how you’re representing yourself and your symbols. The surest way to make folks equate your symbols with good behavior is to have it handy while engaging in good behavior. Preach always; when necessary, use words.

Stairwell Philosophy – More artsy thoughts

I’ve come to an odd realization that Roger Ebert may have been more right about games than I thought, specifically in that an interactive medium may be counter-productive to storytelling. Perhaps more specifically, interactivity makes it more difficult for the developers to tell you a story. While games do contain illustration and music and in a sense sculpture, in this instance I’m talking about two kinds of art: storytelling and interactive experiences. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but the more I think about it the more difficult it seems to do both at once. Speaking of longwinded storytelling, this time around I’m going to see if I can break tradition and make this post more concise than what we’ve had so far. Righto, let’s dig in.

This ponderance came about when I considered reviews for Mafia II that called it GTA without the freeroam. GTA4’s Liberty City is a phenomenal technical achievement and a great setting. It facilitates the telling of a good story, but can’t accomplish that on its own. Likewise the game’s cutscenes are great stuff, to the point that it felt a little jarring to me when the cutscene ended and I went ‘off the rails’ again.

This got me thinking about memorable moments in my gaming history, and noting how many of them involved little or no interactivity. No matter how fast you get to the chopper, the nuke still goes off in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. No matter how good you are at dodging and shooting, you can’t beat Mother Brain in Super Metroid until the hatchling shows up to help. No matter how obvious the proper course of action is to you, Squall still needs to be talked into rescuing his girlfriend from being launched into space in Final Fantasy 8.

Most games with a story to tell these days utilize cutscenes, scripted events, or some combination thereof. Depending on your point of view a quicktime event could be seen as a poor man’s scripted event or the ruining of a perfectly good cutscene. Cutscenes are definitely the easiest way to deliver a story to the player because they’ve no choice but to put down the controller and watch what you show them. They also serve as a nice little reward for a job well done, such as bookending big boss fights in Final Fantasy games. Unfortunately sometimes they go on too long, such as… well, Final Fantasy games.

And let's not forget this guy.

Scripted events present a bit of a challenge to the game designers because you have to predict where and when your audience will be looking and listening without making it too obvious where you’re leading them. When it goes well you get Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty games, such as that feeling of suspense when a scripted chopper falls out of the sky right in front of you with whirring blades of death that won’t actually hit you but by golly it looks like they will. When it doesn’t go well you get the later F.E.A.R games where you hear a random piano chord because the game thought you would be looking out this window over here to see some shadowy figure run by, but you missed it because you were investigating a desk on the other side of the room.

Not pictured: proper use of ambiance.

My realization in both cases (and the connection of this incoherant ramble to Roger Ebert’s statements about games as art) is that the most direct way to tell a story is to take away interactivity. As long as the player is in control you can only place story elements in their path and hope they choose to take a look. This is where film excels in storytelling. You decide exactly how and when your story advances. No matter how many times you watch the movie, Frodo will never get stuck in an animation loop and be unable to walk into mordor. Likewise, opearting the dvd remote will never suddenly become so complicated that the audience is physically unable to watch the third act.

Then again...

Such is the dillema of storytelling in games. If you give the player freedom they can have plenty of fun to goof around, but you’ll have a hard time telling a story. If you sit them down and make them watch your story play out for a little while you directly and (hopefully) eloquently present your message, but at the cost of the interactivity that makes a game a game. Developers continue to try to find the middle ground. Bioware’s history of branching dialogue has evolved into fully branching cutscenes in modern games like Dragon Age and the Mass Effect series. Quick Time Events can generally go die in a fire, but when used very carefully they can still contribute to the experience via storytelling combined with a modicum of interactivity. The small genre of visual novel games such as the Ace Attorney series have virtually no interactivity beyond presenting the right inventory item when prompted inbetween reading reams of text. Perhaps the true hurdle, however, is that perhaps we’re looking at the quandry of storytelling in gaming from the wrong angle here, with the addition that I’m glad for Ebert’s comments leading me to this train of thought.

The man knows his stuff.

Ebert is correct that a game cannot tell a story in the same way as a film because the storyteller must give up control of the story periodically to give the player something to do. You can sit the player down and have them watch your story, you can give the player a world in which to tell their own story, but doing both at the same time may be trying to serve two masters. Games shouldn’t try to be movies; games should be games. In the previous bit of Stairwell Philosophy I opined that the folks behind Broken Saints crafted something unique and interesting by not just copying the methods of related mediums sequential art and film, but creating an experience uniquely suited to online flash animation. So it must also be for games that if they want to tell a story they should do so through interactivity.

The unique and most important advantage of storytelling in games is the interactivity and the personal involvement of the player. In film and books and illustration you can empathize with the depicted characters, but in a game you are the character. I’m gonna go old school on you here with my first memory of a game eliciting an emotional response, which was towards the end of Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest on the NES. It was one of the first games where I got all the way to the end, so I’d been at this for quite awhile. I was getting ready to fight Dracula, one of the biggest baddest movie monsters around. The whole game was coming down to this. Did I have enough items? Would I be able to dodge his attacks? How far back would I have to go if I lost? Mind that the actual boss fight just consisted of bouncing diamonds around the room at him and jumping and whipping a lot. I don’t think he even moved around, and he certainly didn’t turn into a giant bat monster like he does in modern castlevania games. Many games before had made me feel tense because of a coming test of skill and reflexes, but this was the first time I felt in-character stress. I was going to fight Dracula.

To a ten-year-old he's huge.

Likewise the design of the levels contributed to this feeling. After battling hordes of bouncing/jumping/flying/etc. monsters across varying colorful environments with bouncy 8-bit music, I stepped into the catacombs leading to Dracula’s lair. The music was muted and ominous, soft bass tones gravely foretelling the coming showdown between multigenerational rivals. The rooms were simple white squares on black, taking me further from the familiar. I was going into the dark place where mortals fear to tread. Similar techniques are used with increasing frequency in the Metroid games. Background mood music and a stark lack of communication with other people reinforce feelings of solitude and loneliness. It’s just you and a hostile alien world. Nothing human, nothing familiar, no assistance, no communication, and if you get into trouble nobody will ever find you.
Speaking of Metroid, playing Metroid: Other M gave me a fine appreciation for the increasingly bygone era of the silent protagonist. Back in the day this was all the technology could handle, which I believe cultivated the stronger points of storytelling through game design. Every tiny animation of the characters and every pixel of the levels had to be put to use if you wanted to get any sort of story across. Silent protagonists can also dovetail well with people who tend to talk to the game as the play. As for the games with dialogue, there’s been a few really cool moments where the dialogue is going back and forth and my natural response is echoed by my character.

Here we get closer to the art of video games. Interactive entertainment has an innate advantage in making you care about what happens to the protagonist because you are the protagonist. The assisting npcs are your friends (and occasionally annoying hangers-on). I’m reminded of that recent Prince of Persia game (the one with the guy with the metal glove who looks like he just did a heist at an ancient persian laundromat). Influenced by the legendary Ico, the game has an npc sidekick. Unlike Ico however, your sidekick is an able combatant whose job is to generally keep you from dying. She uses magic attacks to take down special enemies, helps you make long jumps, and teleports you to safety when you’re about to be killed by various hazards. Now, mechanically, what this means is when you press the Y button a second character runs up and punches the guy instead of you punching him, and instead of going to a loading screen you just watch an animation whenever you fall off a cliff. What I like about it though is that it turns these basic game mechanics into storytelling tools, personifying the bits and bytes.

I, for one, find her preferable to clicking through two menus and waiting for three loading screens.

For example, when you jump onto a climbable wall your character will reach out and the sidekick will leap and grab onto you. Realistically I know that it’s a locked animation so no matter how far or fast I go the other character will always catch up because that’s what she’s programmed to do. But as I played I noticed that whenever I’d go jump onto a wall I’d pause there a moment to catch her before moving on, even though it’s impossible to not catch her. And if you need further proof of how personifying game mechanics can add to a game’s flavor, just go play Left 4 Dead and listen to people speak of the A.I. Director as though it were a fickle and spiteful deity.

Which leads to the final point of this mad ramble, and the key part to understand about games as art: a game does not need to tell a story to be a work of art. The purpose of music is to be heard. The purpose of a movie is to be watched. The purpose of a game is to be played. There is an art to great games that we can play over and over again long after we know the story so well we can skip all the cutscenes and still know exactly what’s going on. You see a ton of this from the indie developers who can afford to try out weird new ideas based around a game mechanic rather than around a movie license or a franchise brand, gameplay-focused ideas like Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft. I think that’s what’s kept me a Nintendo fan through the years as well. The Wii doesn’t get as much new game love in my house as the 360 and only barely more than the PS3, but it’s because the old games are still good. Just as I never tire of hearing More Than A Feeling or watching Princess Bride, I still periodically break out the various adventures of Mario and Link and the gang. Modern gaming technology can help games tell some pretty amazing stories, but the interactive experience is what really makes it tick, where you’ll find the true art of game design. As the saying goes, the play’s the thing.

Stairwell Philosophy – Teenagers on the internet

Netflix recently delivered unto me a neat motion comic by the name of Broken Saints, and watching it again really takes me back. Way back in 2001, we’d only finally gotten internet in our house a few years prior and the hot new thing was Macromedia Flash. Like with any new toy a lot of folks were just sort of throwing it against the wall to see what sort of funny sounds it makes. This being the early years of the internet, it was also a bit of a pain to load up a webpage on your 56k modem when there were whole megabytes of wacky animations vomited all over the page. Remember when a meg was a long download?

Anywho, a friend of mine introduced me (or maybe I introduced him, I forget which) to an at the time fledgeling art project called Broken Saints. It was something new and different that I’d never seen before. A bonus feature on the second disc of this set has one of the creators talking about how he decided upon the format of the story, and looking back it was definitely a very interesting idea.

As he says in his presentation, when a new art medium first starts out a lot of people use it to try to mimic established mediums, but these are rarely the most effective applications; an art medium works best when it finds an application best suited to its own unique strengths. A book can stretch time out to give the reader a detailed description of every bit of sensory input happening in a scene. A film can make sweeping landscapes and motion come to life before the viewer. Traditional art and graphic novels can capture snapshots of a scene in extensive detail. Gaming gives the viwer interactive control, with a direct role in making the story progress and reaping the rewards and consequences of their actions.

Something on the internet is recieved in a different way than you’d recieve a movie or book. Back in the day it was something that you had to sit in a chair and look at on a relatively small screen, ans since it was probably tying up the phone line you couldn’t be sitting there looking at it all day. It could take a few minutes for it to load up depending on your connection, so you couldn’t just jump in any old time. Further, you couldn’t pause a flash animation. Once you settle in and click play, you’re in for the duration. If you look away or get up to do something else you’ll miss something and have to start over.

So that was us in 2001. We’d wait for the episode to load fully, then click play at the same time so as to share the experience. Generally it was late at night so we wouldn’t have to worry about phone calls, headphones on to keep it quiet, watching dim monitors in dark rooms. Even now it doesn’t quite feel right unless I watch it after dark with the lights dimmed. The content was also noteworthy if you happened to be still living with your parents at the time. Plenty of foul language, occasional partial nudity, and generally really trippy stuff happening that there’s really no explanation that would make what’s happening on-screen seem normal.

All of this combined to make an especially memorable experience, not just a story but a journey. It was something for which we had to set aside time, something to which we had to commit fully in order to get the full experience in one sitting. Plus with the aforementioned mature content it had that forbidden fruit angle, seeing something maybe we weren’t supposed to see.

The internet is perhaps the greatest boon to the sharing of information since the invention of the printing press, but its tremendous ability to distribute information may be hampered by its limited ability to impart an experience. Or perhaps I should say, its underutilized ability. If you’ve ever lost sleep because you just wanted to click a few more links on Wikipedia or TV Tropes, you know that the search for information can take you on a long and winding road. Yet most times it is devoid of context. Pure information, independant of an experience.

Though I’d never say we should hoard information away from people, there’s a subtle value in putting at least a little hurdle in the path. It’s proven that people learn more when the topic is something they want to learn about, and having a little challenge to overcome makes the knowledge earned feel more valuable. Likewise, an artist can have a greater impact upon the audience by making a more complete experience. Smell-o-vision has come and gone, and with modern smartphones it’s a good deal more difficult to control when and where people recieve internet content, but you’ve still got sight and sound at your disposal. As goes the old writing axiom, don’t tell, show.

You the reader can also use the modern wireless world to your advantage. Don’t always use the internet in the same place. It may be comfortable in your command center, but it can make things stale after awhile. Go outside, go out back, go to the library. Go somewhere to make your experience just a little bit different and stamp one moment as distinct from the last and the next.

There’s an early episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (always keep a look out for wisdom from strange places) wherein two characters are debating whether or not books continue to have value as the usefulness of the internet continues to expand. The pro-book fellow makes the statement that there’s something books have that a webpage doesn’t; books are smelly. More specifically, when you read something from a book it has a smell, a shape and a texture, something concrete that you hold and posess. An old book has the smell and the wear of each of its past owners, connecting you in some small way to the history of people you may not have even met. Keep it in a safe place when it’s not in use and it could go on to exist for generations, preserving a snapshot of the past. It’s an experience deeper than just text on a page.

So to you artists, seek every strength of your chosen mediums and use them to their fullest potential to give not just information, but an experience. You readers and viewers and gamers, find a new place to read, go see a movie with friends, try games outside your usual fare (especially if you own more than three Halo and/or Madden games), go have an experience.