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Super Mario Galaxy

Mariogalaxyboxart Super Mario Galaxy is a highly polished, professionally produced platform game, with much to recommend it. Unfortunately, it is also a product of the tensions in the videogames marketplace – stuck between continuing to court the support of the gamer hobbyist, and meeting the play needs of the wider mass market audience, and this creates certain problems which cannot easily be overcome. As of the end of March this year, this title has sold some 6.1 million units, making it the most successful standalone game on the Wii, and given that this sales figure has been achieved in less than six months, it still has a reasonable chance of outselling its seminal predecessor, Super Mario 64, which sold 11 million units.

This is not a review of the game – I am not trying to suggest who will enjoy this game or otherwise, although this information may be derivable from the following analysis. Rather, I want to examine the game design of this title and consider some of the implications that these design choices had on the game’s audience, largely with the goal of demonstrating how fiendishly difficult the process of creating AAA videogames for a mass market audience has become. Some familiarity with the game is assumed, to save describing all of the game’s details completely.

 

Emotions of Play

At their heart, the Mario games have always been rushgames – capitalising on vertigo to generate excitement, and offering challenges of sufficient difficulty to provide the emotional reward of fiero (triumph over adversity) such that the game also operates as something of a wargame as well.

Unfortunately, it has become quite difficult to create rushgames for an audience that will include both gamer hobbyists and mass market players, because of an ever-widening gap in game literacy and control skills. Gamer hobbyists can complete absurdly difficult platform challenges without batting an eylid, while certain mass market players can feel a sense of reward just at correctly working out how to get through a linear task sequence in a tutorial!

This basic problem haunts Galaxy throughout, with many reviews commenting that it is too easy to reach the main ending (which occurs at 60 stars – about half-way through the content), and overlooking the necessity of the end point being in-reach for a mass market audience who lack the skills of their game-obsessed counterparts. The later challenges are difficult enough to satisfy any gamer hobbyist, however, and to complain at the end point being placed too soon is to unreasonably assume a greater obligation on Nintendo’s part to satisfy the gamer hobbyist over the mass market player.

Relating to this is a problem which cannot be overcome: the success of the platform game genre in the 1990s came on the back of new kinds of platform game that while copying many of the elements of the successful Super Mario 64 formula recast the genre closer to the “virtual tourism” vibe which is well suited to a mass market audience. This shift gradually caused the gamer hobbyists to abandon the genre in droves for other genres that were better pushing their buttons (FPS games, for instance), and without the hobbyists to proselytise to the masses the platform boom of the nineties collapsed.

Galaxy does not evoke this “virtual tourism” vibe very well – although its environments are inventive and engaging. I believe the strange miniature worlds and odd gravity effects of Galaxy will be somewhat off-putting to the mass-market in general, being weird and unfamiliar (things the mass market seldom connects with). Because this game necessarily draws directly from the well of prior Mario games, and not from the wider canon of the platform game genre, there is a lost opportunity to appeal to a wider audience with a more explorable sandbox world, rather than the chain of challenges that is employed.

 

Verbs of Play

The previous title in the 3D Mario platform games, Super Mario Sunshine, attempted to revitalise the ailing genre by the addition of new player actions involving a special water-squirting backpack. This was not enormously successful, and many players felt this was a clunky addition. (This earlier title also suffered from imperfect level design, probably as a result of time pressure during development).

In Galaxy, Mario’s moves are not significantly different from their classic roots – a suite of different jumps, along with requisite supplemental moves such as dive attacks, plus a spin attack achieved by shaking the Wii remote. This kinaesthetic control element works nicely – it’s one of only two gesture controls that make use of the Wii’s motion sensitivity (the other being an odd ‘screwdriver’ gesture) and it’s used both to fight enemies (including Boss enemies) and to activate the “Sling Stars” that link the end of one platforming section to the next. This works nicely: it’s an easy control to activate, and adds a nicely visceral aspect to the play of the game, especially in Boss fights where the feel of thumping Bowser or his son becomes quite tangible.

Another unique feature is that the player collects “star bits” (an additional economy that has been added to the game beyond Stars and Lives) by pointing at them with the Wii Remote cursor, and can then fire these star bits at monsters to stun them. This doesn’t enormously contribute to the main gameplay (although it can be useful), but is significant when a second player is involved (see below).

It has been a feature of the Mario franchise for many years that extra abilities that he gains are temporary – either time limited, or lost when Mario takes damage. This element remains in Galaxy, although some of the new abilities such as the Bee Suit (essentially a jetpack) and the Boo Suit (a ghostly alternative jetpack) are restricted by avoiding water and light respectively. There is something fundamentally unsuccessful about the way this is dealt with in Galaxy – some of the new abilities provided to Mario can be fun, but they are often rather frustrating, and frequently underused.

For instance, the Ice Mario power-up is time limited. The ability it grants is good fun – skating across water that freezes as you go is satisfying, and wall jumping up frozen waterfalls is especially rewarding. But the time-limited aspect of these abilities contributes to the rushgame goal of excitement at the expense of the greater player agency that could have been afforded. It’s hard to appreciate that the time limitation is being used to add excitement, when what one is feeling is the frustration that one does not have the time to experiment with the new toy that has been given (a freedom that other platform games would have more willingly afforded).

Additionally, some of the toys on offer are not much fun – the manta ray is a pain to control, as is Spring Mario and to some extent Rolling Ball Mario, and there are other similar niggles lurking in the corners. These are used sparingly, which is a good thing, but perhaps the game would be better if they had been excised entirely: the time used in their implementation could perhaps have been better spent in other ways.

 

Camera

The big revolution that came with Super Mario 64 was the camera object – this allowed for the flourishing of 3D worlds in videogames, and is perhaps the single most important design innovation of recent decades. In Galaxy, the game provides little camera control, and instead uses a fixed-camera mentality to ensure there is a good view in every situation. Often, the viewpoint defaults to side-on, making the game into a “two and a half-D” platformer – these segments of the gameplay work nicely, as most players can interpret a 2D environment more easily than a 3D world.

There are places when the camera specification can be confusing – especially when flipping between one plane of gravity and another, since Galaxy is set on odd-shaped worlds which the player can stand on either side of (most of the time). Certain players will find their control stick doesn’t work in the manner they expected when experiencing the gravity flips, but for the most part this problem is manageable.

Some gamer-hobbyist players will lament the lack of camera control, and find it frustrating – however, these will be in the minority of the game’s overall audience. The mass market players will mostly be thankful for the assistance the game provides them in taking away the demand to control the camera object (although most will lack the game literacy to recognise this state of affairs). A considerable amount of time must have been invested in specifying the fixed camera views – this is increasingly becoming a necessary element of games targeting a mass market audience, because of the vast skills gap between the hobbyists and the more “casual” players.

 

Co-Star Mode

The game features a co-operative mode in which a second player can assist Mario. This probably should not be considered a “Two player mode” as the second player is not granted sufficient agency for this appellation to be justified. Rather, Co-Star Mode is more like a support mode – and indeed, the game is much easier with the second player assisting simply because the extra player has the ability to ‘hold’ monsters in a glowing white field, fixing them in place and rendering their attacks ineffective. This doesn’t work against everything, but there are sufficient places where it is helpful for it to be worth having a second player if one is struggling with the game.

The Co-Star Mode has received considerable criticism for not being a particular effective two-player mode – the second player is not nearly as engaged in events on screen as the player in control of Mario, and may in many cases feel that they are not being enormously helpful (since the opportunities to assist come intermittently). Nonetheless, I believe some praise is due to the team for the inclusion of this feature: a support mode allows for players to play together (which is a vital play need for many players, and especially in the mass market) and the fact that having a second player makes the game easier provides a unique difficulty balancing mechanism: hobbyists seeking challenge can play unaided, while mass market players who are struggling can get a friend or family member to help them through the tough parts.

In Co-Star Mode, the main player does not need to point their Wii Remote at the screen most of the time, and can focus on the platform elements while the support player can sweep up star bits with their cursor, and interact helpfully with the monsters. This split, which divides the game actions between players, further contributes to the game feeling much easier in Co-Star Mode. The mode is far from perfect, but as an attempt to incorporate a social play form in a genre normally toxic to this kind of co-operation it is laudable.

Additionally, the Co-Star Mode represents an excellent Tutor mode – an already experienced player can take the support role, and even has the opportunity to cause Mario to jump when necessary for added assistance. Allowing experienced and game literate players to use their skills to help the less experienced players get to grips with Mario’s world helps spread the appeal of the game, at least in principle.

 

Lives

The strangest aspect of the game design is the use of lives. I am not wholly of the opinion that “the time for lives has passed”, although there is a certain zeitgeist towards this viewpoint. In fact, when I have challenged developers I work with on their choice to include lives in certain games, the common response is “we needed some kind of economy” – that is, without lives for the player to win, developers struggle to find rewards to offer the player for their game actions. A detailed discussion of this argument would require more time than we have here.

The problem is not that the game chooses to use lives – there are sound reasons for wanting to do so, over and above this being traditional to the Mario form. For a start, players who are doing terribly on a particular challenge should arguably be required to take a break, rather than getting more and more angry about failing to pass the challenge – limited lives provides this escape clause in a natural manner. What is odd about the lives is the way they are implemented: when the player comes into the game, they start with exactly 4 lives (they also get 5 extra lives in a letter from Peach most times they return to the game). This means, no matter how many lives you stockpile during your game time, you will return to the game next time with either 4 or 9 lives.

On the one hand, this is liberating: a lot of players (including myself) would have felt obligated to stockpile a vast number of lives had the number of lives accumulated been ‘banked’. The fact that it is not thus frees the player to focus on the gameplay, and as it happens there are sufficient extra lives in the hub area that the player can easily stockpile the lives they need for a particular day’s gaming (plus, in the most difficult parts of play, an extra life mushroom is almost always provided – so pragmatically players can repeat challenges as many times as they need to just by collecting the mushroom each time they make the attempt).

On the other hand, this is incredibly confusing. When you leave the game with (say) 20 lives and return with just 4, it is natural to feel cheated. The fact that the static number of starting lives liberates the player from the logistical chore of stockpiling lives (putting aside the fact that some players would have enjoyed this task) is not clear at first, and I suspect that for most gamer hobbyists it will take some time for the reality of this situation to settle in.

It’s hard not to feel, under the circumstances, that it would have been possible to push beyond the lives mechanic and find something new and more suitable to the circumstances. However, perhaps it is necessary to afford some grace in this instance simply because the Mario franchise has such a long history it is difficult for it to step away from certain features, including lives, without thwarting expectations. Plus, it must be said that the limited lives does contribute excitement in certain situations, thus shoring up the emotional goals of the play.

 

Final Remarks

This is a videogame which succeeds admirably on many fronts – it is good looking, plays well for the most part, and has a genuinely inventive collection of levels, almost all of which have been very carefully tweaked and balanced. The progression mechanic – collect Stars to unlock new Galaxies to collect more Stars – is tried and tested, and works as well as it ever did (although it is worth nothing that for the first time since Super Mario 64 itself, the player is allowed to find a Star other than the one they originally selected to try for, which is a welcome return to the structure of the older game). However, there is some softening of the dependencies since wide scale progression is dependent upon completing Boss levels, and not simply upon collecting Stars. Fortunately, the Boss fights use a common set of mechanics, making them much more accessible to a wider audience.

Some concern must be raised about the repetition: the checkpoint system that is employed does allow for some ratcheting of progress, but the sensibility behind the positions of these checkpoints is very "hardcore" - that is, the player often has to repeat a section of play many times before overcoming it. This is traditional to the Mario franchise, but it is not enormously friendly to mass market players (and, for that manner, the great many gamer hobbyists who have emotional needs beyond fiero). There is a sense that this repetition makes more sense in wargames (with their explicit focus on fiero) than rushgames but it is a fact of the market that the general demand for fiero among the hobbyists makes it hard for any game incorporating this vital part of the audience to eliminate potentially frustrating elements as these can be the very challenges which lead to the biggest emotional payoff in victory. Indeed, one can argue that the factoring out of this element in the platform games of the late nineties contributed to the genre's demise.

It’s biggest problem, the handicap it is largely unable to throw off, is that it is the latest in a long line of Mario games and must struggle to balance not only the varied play needs of the modern gaming audience against each another, it must do this against the backdrop of a franchise history unparalleled by any other game in existence. The weight of this history is too much to be overcome in some cases. Between these competing forces, it was always going to be difficult to innovate and amaze, and certainly this game could not hope to exceed the wonderment that Super Mario 64 could provide with its dynamic (and unrepeatable) transition from 2D to 3D.

I don’t believe this is the game that will revitalise the platform genre, as the requirements of the franchise in this case have forced the game down lines closer to hobbyist needs than mass market, despite the fact that most gamer hobbyists will find other games to prefer. This makes me worry about the future of the platform game genre, since if Mario cannot revitalise it, one must naturally wonder if any franchise could. There is an opportunity here, for someone with the right team and the right idea, to resurrect the successful elements of the 1990s platform game boom and deliver them in a form which once again successfully straddles the major split in the games market, but there is also the terrible possibility that the hobbyists and the mass market have diverged so much at this point they can no longer be served simultaneously. Wii Sports hits the mass market better than the hobbyists; now we have games that can do this, there may be no going back.

Super Mario Galaxy is a worthy successor to the Mario 3D crown; it would be churlish to complain that it is not more than that, no matter how strongly one might feel that it could have been.


Intellectual Property

In the context of creative media, Intellectual property (IP) refers to the rights for a particular setting or work. These days, such rights are closely guarded by the media corporations and rarely if ever shared, although the nature of IP ownership varies radically according to the medium being considered.

In Books, the author is the owner of the IP to their work (except in cases where the book is licensed from an existing IP – for instance, Star Trek novelisations). The reason for this is clear: the cost of writing a book is trivial, so money is only involved in publishing, distributing and marketing. In this set up, it’s difficult for the publisher to demand the IP rights because the author could simply go elsewhere.

In Comics, the writer and artists didn’t used to have much in the way of rights, although an originator credit (“Batman created by Bob Kane”) was often afforded. In the 1990s, however, creator-owned comics became popular, and in particular a comic publisher named Image made waves by setting up new creator-owned comic franchises one of which, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, actually went on to be successful. Next to the mega comic licenses of Marvel and DC, however, these creator-owned comics are rather lower down the commercial ladder.

In Television, the cost of development is even higher. At this point, creator-owned IP is somewhat uncommon, although originator credits still occur (“Based upon Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry”). The TV companies shell out a lot of money for the shows, and they expect to own the IP to offset the risks, although some of the larger television production companies manage to hold onto their IP rights by shouldering most of the risk of development out of their own pockets.

In Films, the situation is as in television only more so: budgets are even higher, risk is even higher. For original film franchises, the movie company providing the finance expects to own the IP. However, increasingly (because of the risks involved in making highly expensive movies) movies are not based upon original ideas at all. The movie industry has been taken over by licensed movies – films based on books, comics, TV shows (even ones from decades ago) or even old films. The creative talent behind certain movies may get compensated financially from the profits of the films they work on, but they rarely if ever have any ownership of the intellectual property involved.

And so to Games, where the situation is similar to films, but on a smaller scale. Whereas a movie costs around $100 million to make, AAA videogames are made for budgets more like $5-10 million (about one tenth of that of movies). Similarly to films, the investor putting forward the budget expects to receive the IP rights as an additional way to offset the risk involved. While most videogames (and most movies) fail, the few that succeed become major revenue generators, and owning the IP allows the company to capitalise on this success. Also like films, licensed games form a vital backbone to the industry – EA’s success is based almost entirely on their ownership of the major sporting licenses, for instance.

The net result of this is that the creative talent behind a particular idea is only likely to be the IP owner in the case of books, sometimes comics and occasionally for TV. Elsewhere, creative individuals must trade the intellectual property rights in return for the money afforded to create the media property in question – whether it is a TV show, a movie or a videogame. What is missing from this state of affairs is the recognition that without the creative talent still onboard, some franchises are inherently weakened – The Ren and Stimpy Show was never the same after show-creator Jon Kricfalusi was fired, for instance (although it must be noted that Kricfalusi’s intransigence contributed to this outcome).

As a creative individual working in the videogames space, it is difficult facing a point in a project beyond which all the work spent lovingly crafting setting, characters and game mechanics is going to contribute to another company’s bottom line – the point of signing away an IP that one has worked upon from the ground upwards, knowing that in the future all this creative content that you have provided will belong to another company, who can not only deny you the right to work upon that franchise in the future, but hand it over to someone else who may or may not have the skills to perpetuate it. (To cite a film example, consider what Gregory Widen, who created the story for Highlander, must have felt about the second movie...)

Unfortunately, this is the business reality of the creative industries. Until I have a few million of my own to invest, I have no choice but to accept the circumstances I’m faced with.  I may have to accept it – but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.


Skimming the Internet

When I started blogging, a scratch under three years ago, I had a tight circle of blogs which I read and commented on regularly. It helped that I had a gap in my work at the time. But over the years, the number of blogs in my reader has ballooned such that now I can rarely do more than skim lightly over the surface of them all, picking out the odd thing of interest to respond to. I imagine this is a common experience.

I often make the comparison that having a blog reader is like having a custom newspaper - you decide which columnists to "hire" to add content to your daily rag, and then you flip idly through the pages looking for whatever happens to interest you. Yet there are distinct differences: there are no front page headlines in your blog content, for instance, and if you miss a newspaper one day you can just pick up the next day's; if you miss reading your blog content one day, you have twice as much to look at the next.

I now acquire a tremendous proportion of my fresh information from blogs, although to be fair the feeds I read include news services such as the BBC... I'm sure I'm not alone in facing this situation. The internet has become the de facto source of information for a whole generation, and doubtless beyond. I would, I suppose, lament the fact that my new sources for information are not trained journalists - if it were not abundantly apparent that most trained journalists (in the US, at least) have all but lost any trace of the professional ethics that once went with this profession, and are more interested in the news as a profit centre (or a partisan political tool) than as a  public information service.

In a scant twenty years the internet has insinuated itself in almost every aspect of our lives, a trend that seems likely to continue.  In the 1950s, it was said to be the dawn of "The Atomic Age" - but it was the computer, and the internet it spawned, that has risen to become the most pervasive technology of our time. Now people talk of "The Internet Age". By 2050, even the internet may seem old hat, and who knows what will have our attention then. While we wait to find out, we can still take a moment now and then to marvel at the tremendous transformation that has taken place within our own lifetimes.


Moorcock's Metaphysics (3): The Eternal Champion

May contain spoilers.

Stormbringer The fate of the Eternal Champion, the central character (or characters) in the mythological framework within which the majority of Michael Moorcock’s novels are set, is eternal struggle. In myriad worlds and times, the hero is reborn and finds himself or herself placed in a situation of conflict. Often, the Eternal Champion begins allied to one faction but gradually becomes aware that their side is a dangerous force for racism or imperialism, causing the Champion to betray their allies and fight on behalf of their original enemies. Elric, for instance, is the crown prince of the island kingdom of Melniboné which once ruled over the whole of the Young Kingdoms with cruel detachment, but ultimately brings a horde of sea raiders to sack the Dreaming City, betraying his blood kin and driving the surviving Melnibonéan refugees into exile.

The ultimate archetype of the Eternal Champion is Erekosë, who first appears in the 1970 novel The Eternal Champion. Unlike other incarnations of the Eternal Champion, Erekosë remembers being reborn time and time again to strive and die in eternal conflict, and thus is the most tortured of the various incarnations Moorcock has written about. In the first Erekosë book, the hero is summoned by humanity to fight against the inhuman Eldren, but when incarnated he has distinct memories of being John Daker, an ordinary twentieth century man, and other fragmentary memories of other lives. He begins to doubt his human allies when he sees their brutality in war, and eventually switches sides and exterminates humanity to save the Eldren. (There is a sense in which Erekosë’s suffering originates in this savage betrayal of humanity). Tortured by dreams of other struggles he has fought in other worlds, we also see in Erekosë a wider theme – that humanity is doomed to eternal struggle. 

Although Moorcock did not expressly follow the template of the heroic monomyth described by Joseph Campbell, by reading a voluminous quantity of novels he seems to have gradually absorbed the essential elements of this mythological quest structure and incorporated it into his own work (perhaps most explicitly with the second Corum trilogy, which draws heavily from Celtic mythology). Just as Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces” will experience a different fate depending upon his or her actions at each stage of the heroic quest, so Moorcock’s Eternal Champion can be doomed to suffer eternally (Erekosë), tortured for their betrayals (Elric), find a brief respite from struggle (Corum) or find peace (Hawkmoon) according to the moral calibre of their actions.

Along with the Eternal Champion – the hero or heroine at the centre of the struggles – there is also usually an Eternal Companion and an Eternal Consort. The Eternal Companion acts as a sidekick, a down-to-earth perspective to balance the often melancholy temper of the Champion, and also as comic relief. The fate of the Companion depends substantially upon the fate of the Champion: when the Eternal Champion is doomed, the Companion is usually also ill-fated. Similarly, the Eternal Consort is the woman (or man) the Eternal Champion is destined to fall in love with. The Consort is usually a capable leader – Ermizhad (Erekosë’s lover) leads the Eldren, Corum’s first love Rhalina is the margravine of an island castle, while Hawkmoon’s wife Yisselda fights along side him. Sometimes, the bad judgement of the Champion causes the death of the Consort, as with Elric’s cousin and lover Cymoril, who dies at his own hand in a tragic accident.

Another symbol intimately tied to the Eternal Champion mythos is the Black Sword, within which a dark and malevolent entity resides. The most famous incarnation of this is Elric’s howling runesword Stormbringer, which steals the souls of those it slays, giving Elric strength in the process. The Black Sword stands in part for the price of power – the wielder becomes a near unstoppable force by employing its dark strength, but loses their moral perspective, and gambles with the lives of those they love. Elric, who as an albino is naturally weak and requires magical herbs just to remain alive, depends upon the strength Stormbringer provides him, but the blade betrays him over and over again, bringing him nothing but misery – slaying first his lover, later his best friend, and ultimately Elric himself. The Black Sword is a powerful metaphorical warning, akin to Baron Acton’s adage “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Some of the incarnations of the Eternal Champion fight on the side of Law, but end up defeating it (Corum), some fight on the side of Chaos but ultimately strive to defeat it (Elric) while some fight against Law or Chaos without expressly supporting the alternative. Hawkmoon, for instance, opposes the Empire of Granbretan – an allegory of early British imperialism – which represents the domination of Law, but never fights expressly for the forces of Chaos since these are not directly represented in his post-apocalyptic world. To some extent, the Eternal Champion can be seen as fighting for the Cosmic Balance – striving against whichever side has the upper hand in order to restore equilibrium, although they rarely if ever are aware of this fate.

However, there is a certain sense in which the ultimate fate of the Eternal Champion might be to overthrow the very need to struggle – that is, to destroy the Cosmic Balance – a theme which becomes explicit in Moorcock’s first attempt to close the Eternal Champion mythos, The Quest for Tanelorn (first published in 1975). In this story, the Black Sword and the Cosmic Balance are explicitly presented as conflicting yet interdependent forces, with the dark entity inside the sword desiring the destruction of the Balance which holds it back from absolute dominion. The Black Sword here stands for conflict and war in a wider political sense, and is represented as a threat to the whole of humanity.

The different paths of the Eternal Champion’s incarnations holds a key to understanding why Moorcock has said he believes in “tangible good and evil”, yet good and evil are never explicitly represented. There is an existential philosophy at work in Moorcock’s writings that originates in French influences such as Camus and Satre, whom Mike read in the fifties. From this background comes recognition that there may be good or evil actions, but not good or evil causes – one cannot choose to “side with the good”, as such, for “good” is a metaphor and not a faction; one can only choose those actions that are just and fair in the circumstances that one faces. This can be seen in the betrayal tableau that recurs with the doomed manifestations, who suffer in some respects out of an inability to find a way to bring the good out of the tragic (‘good’ here representing something like the well being of the many, and ‘evil’ representing acts of selfish cruelty or greed). The closer to a benevolent course of action the hero is able to achieve, the more felicitous the Champion’s eventual fate.

And yet, death is not the end for the Eternal Champion – especially for doomed-to-remember Erekosë. This circumstance arises from the backdrop against which the Eternal Champion stories are set being not a single world, but a vast and complex multiverse, many different planes and dimensions between which the Champion sometimes crosses to pursue her (or his) quest. Within this idea lies a further subtlety in the metaphysical themes of Moorcock’s work.

The opening image is the cover from the 1985 Granada/Panther Books edition of Stormbringer, by the artist Michael Whelan. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Next week: The Multiverse


Malone on Curiosity

Pf_973641curiosityposters One of the more interesting emotional behaviours associated with videogames is curiosity – that powerful drive to seek out new and interesting information. Yet there is very little written on the subject, unless you count Nicole Lazzaro’s “Easy Fun” key. Or at least – so I thought. Super-heroic Only a Game fixture zenBen (whose blog can be found here), however, has given me nothing short of three papers on the subject of curiosity in the last fortnight. I can scarcely keep up with his deep academic pockets! One of these papers we will come to shortly in another context; for today, I want to talk about two papers by Thomas W. Malone, one from 1980 and the other from 1981.

Malone was conducting research into games as tools for learning – now a very popular topic, but at the time, videogames were far from spectacularly impressive. To put this in context, the most advanced coin-op videogames at this time were Asteroids (Atari) and Pac-man (Namco/Midway). Nonetheless, Malone’s papers make for fascinating reading, and contain numerous ideas still pertinent to the games industry. In fact, what is most disturbing to me is that Malone’s papers aren’t cited more often, or indeed, required reading for game designers.

The papers are packed full of little observations which remain as poignant today as ever. For instance, in the 1980 paper Malone notes in the context of the way the game communicates success and failure to the player:

...performance feedback should be presented in a way that minimized the possibility of self-esteem damage.

This is a lesson that a staggering number of videogames have never learned! Most players are easily discouraged, and yet a macho, conqueror-style ethos is still quite prevalent, with failure being met with abuse and ridicule (even in an otherwise charming game such as Katamari Damacy – although at least in this case a touch of humour offsets the problem).

The most salient line in the 1980 paper states succinctly what should have been the mantra for the videogames industry for the past twenty five years:

If computer game designers can create many different kinds of fantasies for different kinds of people, their games are likely to have much broader appeal.

The same idea is re-iterated in the later paper:

...fantasies can be very important in creating intrinsically motivating environments but that, unless the fantasies are carefully chosen to appeal to the target audience, they may actually make the environment less interesting rather than more.

This is a claim I have been making with ever-increasing force in recent years, and it stuns me to read that someone else could make this observation back when the industry was in its infancy. How does Malone reach his conclusion? By analysing the components of a videogame and the response that players have to the game with different elements removed. He finds that the inherent fantasy of the game (the setting, or the focus of the mimicry) is the single largest factor in player’s enjoying a game – a fact that remains as valid today as it was in 1980.

The discussion of curiosity is mainly in the 1980 paper (although it is summarised in the later piece), and is presented in a pre-existing psychological framework:

Curiosity is the motivation to learn, independent of any goal-seeking or fantasy-fulfilment. Computer games can evoke a learner’s curiosity by providing environments that have an optimal level of informational complexity (Berlyne, 1965; Piaget, 1952). In other words, the environments should be neither too complicated nor too simple with respect to the learner’s existing knowledge. They should be novel and surprising, but not completely incomprehensible.

This observation ties up with recent research into a neurobiological mechanism for interest (or curiosity) by Biederman and Vessel, but we will review this work at another time when we begin to dig into the biology of play more explicitly.

Malone divides curiosity into two variants: sensory curiosity, which is about maintaining interest in the senses (and matches up with Biederman and Vessel), and cognitive curiosity, which is more about the semantic content of information. For example, one picks up a National Geographic because the photo on the cover is intriguing – this is sensory curiosity. One picks up a newspaper because of a surprising headline – this is cognitive curiosity.

The idea of sensory curiosity is not enormously explored beyond the basic statement, although there is some discussion about the work of Jerry Mander’s 1978 work on television and TV commercials in particular. The discussion here focuses on “technical events” – that is, camera cuts, zooms and other changes which apparently serve to keep the viewer’s interest solely on the level of sensory interest. I believe there is considerable more work to be conducted in exploring sensory curiosity in videogames.

On the subject of cognitive curiosity, Malone makes an interesting (although intuited and therefore essentially unsupported) claim:

...people are motivated to bring to all their cognitive structures three of the characteristics of well-formed scientific theories: completeness, consistency and parsimony. According to this theory, the way to engage learners’ curiosity is to present just enough information to make their existing knowledge seem incomplete, inconsistent, or unparsimonious.

This idea strikes me as worthy of further investigation, and even suggests something concerning the nature of science itself. Since until recent centuries “science” meant “domain of knowledge”, perhaps the element that has allowed what we now term “science” (i.e. empirical research)  to gain so much ground is that its mechanisms produce statements that are cognitively pleasing. The alternative interpretation – that we aim for cognitively balanced statements because of the influence of science – seems somehow less plausible, but there is room for inquiry in either case.

There is much to explore in the context of videogames in terms of these three conditions: each suggests a way to sustain the interest of players. By comparison, Lazzaro’s work highlights three aspects of curiosity that can be leveraged: ambiguity, incompleteness and detail. ‘Ambiguity’ seems to match Malone’s ‘inconsistency’ to some extent, ‘incompleteness’ matches ‘incompleteness’ perfectly, while Lazzaro’s ‘detail’ seems to match Malone’s sensory curiosity. Only Malone’s ‘unparsimonious’ (that is to say, ideas that violate the principle of Occam’s razor that knowledge should be succinct) seems unmatched in this comparison. I’m uncertain to what extent players are interested in parsimonious game rules, or to be more precise, while I’m certain some players are interested in developing parsimonious knowledge, it’s unclear how one leverages the absence of parsimony to provoke curiosity.

One aspect of how Malone suggests making use of player curiosity is particularly intriguing. In the 1981 paper, he includes the following bullet point under the subheading of curiosity:

Does the interface use randomness in a way that adds variety without making tools unreliable?

This matches up to our exploration of the use of luck in videogames – the landscape function that I have suggested is one of the modern expressions of Caillois’ alea (games of chance and fate) in videogames. Malone is suggesting that randomness is useful in games because it can provoke curiosity – and on examination, it seems he is on to something here. It is undeniable that the benefit of randomly generating content in a videogame is that the chance-fuelled combinations will produce something intriguing, memorable or simply bizarre. Malone even lists randomness as one of four factors most strongly correlated with a game’s popularity (the other three being explicit goals, score-keeping, and audio effects – but since he was working in 1980 it is important to remember just how crude the games used in his studies would have been).

The idea that an uncertain outcome can fuel a player’s interest is one of the most fascinating elements of the Malone papers, and suggests a link between chance and curiosity in videogames. Malone notes:

Randomness and humor, if used carefully, can also help make an environment optimally complex.

And also:

...if randomness is used in a way that makes tools unreliable it will almost certainly be frustrating rather than enjoyable.

Malone’s observations that uncertain outcomes are inherently part of the draw of videogames warrant further investigation. It seems to me that there are games where the outcome is not really uncertain – in most RPGs, you know you’re going to level up, you just don’t know how, for instance – but even in these cases there is always a level of uncertainty at work. Consider how a player who has mastered a particular game produces a new uncertainty by adding a higher level goal (in speed runs, for instance) – thus restoring uncertainty to the situation.

Perhaps in uncertainty we have a definitive link between chance and curiosity, something which will expand the emotions associated with chance in games (namely the excitement of an unknown outcome, the fiero of winning against the odds, and the sadness of failure) and potentially suggest to us a whole new avenue of exploration in videogame design.

Although the games which were the subjects of Malone’s papers have aged terribly in the intervening decades, Malone’s work has not. I heartily recommend both these papers as a fascinating and oddly fresh perspective on the play of videogames.

The opening image is a Jon Bertelli print entitled Curiosity, which is available for purchase here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

The papers referred to in this post are as follows:

Malone, Thomas W., “What makes things fun to learn? Heuristics for designing instructional computer games”, ACM, 1980.

Malone, Thomas W., “Heuristics for designing enjoyable user interfaces: Lessons from computer games”, ACM, 1981.


Olympic Politics

Question_mark_1The torch relay for the coming Olympics in Beijing and Hong Kong has been the focus of substantial political protests - principally on behalf of Tibet, which  was forcibly invaded by China in 1950 and has been under its control ever since. (Some protesters are also  hoping to influence China to take action in Sudan to prevent the genocide in Darfur, since China has considerable political influence in this African region).

But are the Olympic games a suitable outlet for political protest? Or should they be seen as a neutral international sporting event, which should not be sullied with political affairs? And is it appropriate for US protesters (for instance) to complain about China's occupation of another country at a time when the US is also an occupying power?

In short, what do you think about the furore over the Chinese Olympic games?


You and Your Genes

Your genes aren't you, they just built you and urge you to let them make more things like you. You, however, are more than just your genes... you might say you inhabit a body that your genes built, I suppose, were in not for the fact that it was your mother's body that built you - and her genes were just part of the valuable protein blueprints you inherited from both your parents. Your culture, your community, your friends and family and ultimately your experiences - they all helped you become who you are as much as, or even more than, the biological factory your genes work for. Your genes are a part of you, they made and maintain the extraordinary machine you live in, but it is your will, your consciousness, your spirit, which animates it.


Moorcock's Metaphysics (2): Law and Chaos

May contain spoilers.

Asymmetrical_symbol_of_chaosant One of the recurring features of Michael Moorcock’s novels is the war between the forces of Law and the forces of Chaos. Indeed, the essential source of conflict in many of the hundreds of Moorcock novels originates in this tension, although how it is expressed can vary wildly, from vying pantheons of gods in the core Eternal Champion cycle, to competing political pressures in novels with settings closer to our world. When Law and Chaos are viewed as cosmic forces (such as gods), there is also another metaphysical power known as the Cosmic Balance, which strives to retain equilibrium between the two forces, since ultimate victory by either side in this struggle would mean the end of all life.

Chaos expresses unfettered possibility, and in fact within the fantasy novels the stuff of Chaos is the raw material out of which all things are formed. In the short story “The Dream of Earl Aubec”, part of the lands of the Young Kingdoms (where the Elric stories are set) is dreamed into existence by Aubec from raw Chaos. Within the fantasy milieu, the symbol of Chaos is an eight pointed star, representing possibilities. (The picture above is Walter Simonson's asymmetric version of the symbol, as used in the comic series Michael Moorcock's Multiverse). There is a beauty to Moorcock’s depiction of Chaos in a fantasy context, but it has a savage edge – Chaos lets nothing bind it, and certainly not morality.

The other side of Chaos can be found when it expresses itself in “real world” settings, or in those stories that are set in alternative histories of our world. Here, chaos represents something akin to liberalism, and ultimately anarchy, with a moral relativism that denies any kind of fixed context. The forces of chaos (which are rarely labelled as such in this kind of story) work to undermine the ruling powers and destabilise them, perhaps pushing as far as a return to the “war of all against all” (to employ Hobbes term).

Law, on the other hand, represents order and structure. Often, Law initially appears to be beneficent – in the Corum stories, the protagonist begins by allying with one of the gods of Law in order to defeat the rising tide of the lords of Chaos. However, it eventually becomes apparent that victory for Law means eternal stagnation, and the elimination of all living things (life being far too unpredictable to be allowed free rein in the eyes of the lords of Law!) The realm of Law presented in the fantasy story “To Rescue Tanelorn” and elsewhere is a barren wasteland, devoid of features. In the later Elric novel, The Dreamthief's Daughter, one such realm is described as follows:

[It] was no ordinary desert. It was all that remained of a world destroyed by Law. Barren. No hawks soared in the pale blue sky. Not an insect. Not a reptile. No water. No lichen. No plants of any kind. Just tall spikes of crystallized ash and limestone, crumbling and turned into crazy shapes by the wind, like so many grotesque gravestones.

The flipside to this is the expression of Law in more familiar settings, where it stands to represent conservatism, and ultimately totalitarianism. The rules, which initially provide justice and stability, become stifling, and when they become wildly out of balance the net result is as horrifying as the worst excesses of Chaos. Heroes in alternatives history stories are often fighting against the forces of Law (which are rarely identified as such in this kind of tale) in order to prevent harm to threatened peoples, or to destroy the ruling political powers – particularly in the Nomads of the Time Streams trilogy, which explores two or Moorcock’s perennial themes, racism and imperialism (both expressions of Law in the wider mythology of Moorcock’s work).

Thus, we can see Law and Chaos expressed at different degrees of metaphor in Moorcock's work. In the fantasy stories, the Lords of Chaos and the Lords or Law stand for either social and political forces, or in some cases specific political leaders – in the Hawkmoon stories, for instance, the gods of Granbretan are named after British Prime Ministers: The Howling God, Chirshil (Winston Churchill) and the Roaring God, Aral Vilsn (Harold Wilson) to name but two. In the later Elric novel, The Dreamthief’s Daughter, the Goddess of Law, Miggea is clearly a satirical portrayal of conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for whom Moorcock has expressed considerable disdain.

In alternative histories and stories set in our world, Law and Chaos are not explicitly named, but the same political tensions expressed in metaphor in the fantasy novels are still played out within such stories. The conflict between these two political forces liberalism and conservatism – is the essence of the thematic drive of Moorcock's work, with the core message that people should never permanently ally with one political faction or the other, since either force can become destructive if left unchecked. Rather, Moorcock urges his readers to be ready to support either side as needed in order to keep these two competing political and social forces in balance.

Moorcock’s original inspiration for the Law and Chaos paradigm came from Golden Age science fiction author Poul Anderson, particularly Three Hearts and Three Lions, but it was Moorcock’s fantasy novels which wove the idea into the heart of the counterculture. The use of Law and Chaos as alignments within the popular tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons owes a debt both to  Anderson and especially to Moorcock, although most players of fantasy role-playing games are rather unaware of this heritage. Additionally, the portrayal of Chaos within the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 settings was lifted out of whole cloth from Moorcock’s fantasy novels even the phrases used to describe Chaos in these role-playing games are in places quoted verbatim from Moorcock novels, although the subtly of the original milieu is entirely lost.

There is no explicit concept of good and evil in the Moorcock mythology, although curiously Mike has himself said that he believes in “tangible good and evil”. To understand why the Moorcock metaphysics have no direct expression of good and evil, it is necessary to look at the nature of the centrepiece of all of Moorcock’s fiction: the ill-fated Eternal Champion, doomed forever to struggle.

Next week: The Eternal Champion


Rose Tinted Games

This month’s Round Table is on the topic of the common themes in our favourite games, or least favourite games. Here are my rather tangential musings on the subject.

Rose_tinted Which are my favourite games? It’s a question I struggle with at the best of times, since I have played and enjoyed a great many different videogames, and singling out favourites can be a struggle. But what complicates this matter even further is the uncertainty inherent in asking the question: if I look into my memories and find that, say, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was my favourite game, because of the tremendous fun that I had playing it, what happens when I go and try and play it and find I don’t like it anymore?

And this is exactly what happened last year when I downloaded a SNES emulator and tried to go back to this game – same game, but not as much fun to play as the first time. In fact, I gave up quite quickly and lost interest.

Was it because I had played before and hence there was nothing to be curious about? No. In fact, I couldn’t remember much about the game, and wandered around lost and confused to underline this fact.

Had the technology for games simply moved on too far? Well, yes and no. Clearly that was a factor as I would be much more likely to go and play (say) Wind Waker a second time with some expectation of enjoyment. But on the other hand, I spend a tremendous amount of time playing old Taito arcade games and the like and the step down in graphics quality has simply not been a barrier to enjoyment in those cases.

The problem seems to be that I was wearing rose tinted gamer goggles when I looked back at my play experiences of A Link to the Past. What I remembered was not the game, as such, but rather my experiences of playing the game, which were enormously enjoyable, but in part because I was playing the game with a good friend, at a time when we could just indulge in playing videogames for hours at a time.

Would it be reasonable to say it was a favourite game, based solely upon my memories? Perhaps. But when I think of other favourite games – NiGHTS: Into Dreams, or Impossible Mission, say – I have always been able to go back to the game and enjoy it again, as much as I ever did. One might say that these games were robust enough for me to return to over and over again.

But does that make them my favourite games? Should your assessment of your favourite games be based upon your memories of the experience of playing the game for the first time, in the context of the technology around at the time; or should it be based upon your ability to return to the game? And if so, does this mean that games which lend themselves to replay have an edge over other games in making it to the hallowed status of “favourite”?

These are not questions with definite answers, and I honestly don’t know how I will ever settle this matter in my own head. What is clearer, however, is that I now find I’m reluctant to single out A Link to the Past as a favourite game simply because when I went back to try it again, the nature of the game as it actually was could not match up to my rose tinted memories of its play.


Immortality

Phoenix_ii We all believe in some sort of immortality, more or less, yet it is fashionable among certain crowds to mock and ridicule particular kinds of these beliefs. But is, for instance, belief in heaven more ridiculous or more dangerous than belief in technological immortality? Is belief in reincarnation as fanciful as skeptics would assert? In short, is our attitude towards different ideas about immortality in any way balanced? 

Let us begin by looking at technological immortality, the kind most likely to be believed by scientific materialists and exclusive humanists. There are a variety of ways this might come about, all at this time constituting metaphysical speculations about the future of technology. For instance, we might develop nanotechnology capable of repairing cell damage at the level of the proteins themselves, which could lead to immortal humans, or we could acquire immortality through transplanting consciousness in the manner of Rudy Rucker’s Wares tetralogy – destructively reading the contents of the brain, and then rendering it digitally.

Perhaps the appeal of this approach to immortality for those with a materialistic bent is that they offer relief against the fear of death, which lurks to some degree in all our psyches. Perhaps also, this is why we rarely stop to consider the implications of this sort of technology, for if we did find a path to immortality this way it would represent one of the greatest threats to human life as we know it (or at the very least, to human society as we know it). As we discussed previously in the topic of population, death is a vital part of the life process – there is an essential tension between longevity and reproductive rights, and the only way immortality could realistically be allowed to flourish would be to enforce sterilisation – to give up children in return for exceptionally long life. 

Yet even in this kind of scenario, death is still inevitable. Even an immortal being, in the sense of not being at risk from old age, must face death eventually – either from accidental causes, or from the eventual end of appropriate living conditions in the universe (from heat death, say). And would we even be human without the renewing cycle of death, to bring us each to our final rest, and the arrival of new births, to replenish and invigorate humanity? A society of sterile immortals risks becoming bitter and joyless.

By contrast, the Christian idea of heaven is a very different notion of immortality. In fact, it is many different ideas, since we have long since moved beyond the point of there being any consensus about an afterlife. Few if any people believe in the old doctrine that at a future time the bodies of believers will be disinterred from their graves and restored to life, to live on immortally (a belief that made the cremation of cadavers unacceptable). The sheer cost of burial in our ever more populous world may have helped force change in this particular belief. Today, Christian beliefs about heaven are generally of a less defined form; most feel that there is a place for their souls after they die, but few have specific ideas for what this would mean beyond the idea that death is not the absolute end. 

The usual cause of attack against Christian beliefs about heaven isn’t just that people hold faith in an afterlife, but that a significant number of Christians contend not just that one only qualifies for this prize by choosing the correct religion (and perhaps even the correct denomination) – what I have previously termed a metaphysical lottery – but also that if you lose this luck-of-the-draw game, your penalty is to suffer forever in eternal torment. There has, as Charles Taylor observes, been a marked decline in the doctrine of hell in Christian theology recently, but any driver through the deep south of the United States cannot fail to see roadside signs with messages such as “If you died today where would you spend eternity?” which clearly maintain this belief in a strict win-or-lose attitude to the immortality of the soul. (Note, however, that the immortality of the soul is guaranteed either way – it is just a question of how pleasant your accommodations will be!) 

To be quite frank, I agree with Hannah Arendt that this idea – be good and be rewarded after death, be evil and be punished after death – originated in Plato’s philosophy, and not in Jesus’ ministry. In fact, Jesus has precious little to say about hell, and as Samuel G. Dawson has noted, even what is attributed in this regard seems to refer to the fiery destruction of Jerusalem (which occurred in 70 AD, a few decades after Jesus’ death) and not to hell in its usual construed form, which is largely an invention of later Churches. The focus of Jesus’ ministry is on how we should behave towards one another on Earth; heaven is still alluded to – just not in “repent or die!” terms. 

Plato, in the Myth of Er which concludes his Republic, presents the idea of moral people being rewarded after death, and immoral people being punished (although without any explicit reference to a judging deity). The idea has a longer history, however, in Persian and Egyptian mythology, from where Plato almost certainly encountered the idea. The concept found its way into Christianity in the early fourth century AD, when the Emperor Constantine was faced with the challenge of elevating Christianity – which up until this point had been forced to exist mostly in the persecuted shadows – to the state religion of the Roman Empire. There was no definitive Bible text to refer to at this time (the synod that established this occurred almost a century later), so Constantine had considerable latitude in interpreting the various Christian texts and oral traditions into a coherent religious framework. In doing so, he drew in part from Greek philosophical ideas, including those of Plato, which had already had considerable influence in Rome.

There is little doubt that the psychological urgency created by the threat of hell was a driving factor in the growth of Christianity, and also the source of considerable atrocities conducted by the Church at various times throughout history. However, apart from the boorish behaviour of some modern evangelists who dogmatically maintain such an attitude towards the afterlife today, this kind of viewpoint no longer represents a consensus belief within Christianity. Most Christians have faith that they will be with God when they die, but they do not presume to know exactly what this means, and there is an ever-increasing tolerance for other religions – a growing recognition that being Christian might not be the only path to God. 

In the Dharmic faiths (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) quite different beliefs concerning immortality can be found. In these traditions, although there may be an immortality of the soul akin to the Abrahamic religions’ concept of heaven (a parallel can be made between nirvana and heaven, for instance), reincarnation is the more prevalent belief: souls achieve immortality in the sense that they return to live new lives over and over again. What one thinks of this kind of afterlife depends to a great degree on one’s concept of the soul: clearly, people who have no viable notion of a soul cannot believe in any kind of afterlife, while some concepts of a soul are so broad as to make reincarnation not only plausible, but essentially factual.

Consider the mathematical mysticism of Rudy Rucker, who I mentioned at the start of this piece in the context of immortality technology. In Software, the Phillip K. Dick Award winning first book of his Wares series, one character notes to another whose father has just died: 

Potential existence is as good as actual existence. That's why death is impossible. Your software exists permanently and indestructibly as a certain possibility, a certain mathematical set of relations. Your father is now an abstract, non-physical possibility. But nevertheless he exists!

Reincarnation has even been the subject of scientific research, most famously in the work of Professor Ian Stevenson, who spent forty years investigating cases of children who claimed to have memories from a previous life, finding them on the most part to be quite compelling. In a typical case, the child has memories (sometimes including a name) of someone who died, usually in distressing circumstances – such as the case of a boy in Beirut who remembered dying as a 25-year old mechanic thrown from a speeding car. The details provided by the boy matched an incident that happened a few years before his birth with no apparent connection between the two families involved.

Of course, this kind of investigation is considered verboten by skeptics such has Paul Edwards, who dismissed the evidence as anecdotal. A commonly encountered counter-argument to reports of reincarnation is that there is no known mechanism that would allow for it - yet this puts the cart before the horse: we knew that objects fell downwards long before we had a theoretical framework to explain it. The philosopher Robert Almeder analysed these and other criticisms, and concluded that they all relied on the argument from personal incredulity – “I can’t believe this could be real, therefore it must be false.” More open minded critics at least acknowledge the need for more research – even arch-sceptic Carl Sagan recognised there was something worth investigating here.

Personally, I am somewhat agnostic about immortality in all of its forms. I am not convinced technological immortality is truly achievable (and am utterly unconvinced that is desirable), I find the evidence for reincarnation to be intriguing enough to warrant further research at the very least, and I find the idea of one’s soul joining God in death to be essentially true by definition in my belief system, as a consequence of what the terms “soul” and “God” mean to me, which says nothing substantial about what this would mean in practice. Even a scientific materialist could perhaps appreciate that if soul means “the information comprising my identity” and God means “the infinite” then saying one’s soul returns to God in death” is far from an outlandish claim (whatever this might mean for the individual in question!)

What is troubling about immortality is not the many different views of it that people hold, but the hostility some people display to those with alternative perspectives. Consider the fanatical Christian who thinks that everyone who believes differently to them is doomed to an eternity of pain in hell versus the atheist bigot who, believing that they know the afterlife is certainly false, hurls abuse at Christians for believing otherwise. The former justifies their boorish or even abusive behaviour (in the case of “Hell Houses” and other abominable perversions of Christianity) as being in their victim’s best interests, but fails to comprehend the harm they cause. The latter warns of how dangerous and misleading belief in the Christian afterlife must be while standing silent on the very real risks implied by technological immortality, preferring instead to behave as anti-socially as the Christian zealots they despise! It seems that whatever you believe, there is a flavour of bigot who will abuse you for believing it.

Almost all beliefs about immortality are metaphysical, and thus largely untestable, and to claim one has all the answers in any such a field is the height of hubris. No-one can see the future clearly, and no-one can see beyond the veil of death with any clarity either. Given that we are all in this life together, perhaps a more balanced approach to this issue would be to accept the cornucopia of beliefs about immortality as another aspect of the wonderful diversity of human life, and celebrate it all, either (for those of us who believe in transcendence) as the whispering presence of the divine in the immanent world, or (for whoever believes solely in the immanent world) as an expression of the tremendous creativity of humankind. Life is short enough without fighting over what will happen afterwards.

The opening image is Phoenix II, copyright (c) 2008 Shoshanna Bauer, all rights reserved. It can be found here on her delightful watercolour blog at www.shoshannabauer.com, and is used with permission.