A Tale of Two Walking Simulators (1): Firewatch

FirewatchDear Jed,
Ever since 2012, I’ve been an instant convert to the ‘walking simulator’, a reclaimed derogatory term (much like ‘queer’) that ill-advisedly reinforces two notions that we would be better off without: firstly, that ‘simulation‘ is the best descriptor for the aesthetic qualities of videogame fiction, and secondly that violent videogames are ‘murder simulators’. We should resist any temptation to go down this line of thinking, but nonetheless ‘walking simulator’ is the term that has stuck, and it is a perfectly serviceable descriptor.

If we put side to side the artgame achievements of the walking simulator, broadly construed, it marks bold new possibilities for the media that share the name ‘videogame’, new paths that in no way invalidate (and indeed, help illuminate) our more familiar player practices. 2005’s The Endless Forest – Tale of Tales’ landmark ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’ – not only led to thatgamecompany’s Journey but revealed new potential for the encounter play that had been inherent in table top-role playing games but had struggled to find expression in any visual form. Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, perhaps my favourite game of this century, turns walking into a magical experience using only the tricks of the nature documentary and a cunning alliance of sound and vision. But it is perhaps The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther that especially helps shed light on contemporary games by being built upon the skeleton of an FPS yet stripped of its guns and violence. It delivers a wondrous ghost story whose thin play seemed to open the door to new narrative possibilities in videogames by denying the necessity of challenge – for which it had to be ostracized as ‘not a game’ by legions of aesthetically conservative players.

But... what happens next? It is a matter of some importance to me whether we are talking about a few momentary blips in the otherwise predictable flight plan for videogames, or the start of a movement, style, or genre that would stake a claim for the new, or else regress into familiar territory. Gone Home, despite its popularity, had disappointed me both by resorting to puzzle-solving (and thus defaulting back to well-worn adventure game territory) and by being more interested in its bait-and-switch twist than in its characters, relying on political posturing rather than following the story where it led.

Such is the prologue to this two-part letter I have wanted to write to you for quite a while. August 2015 saw the release of The Chinese Room’s follow up to Dear Esther, which I will discuss in the second half of this missive. For now, let us fast forward six months to February 2016, and the release of Firewatch, the most hyped walking simulator to date, soaring on the back of the popularity of Telltale’s The Walking Dead by virtue of inheriting part of that company’s writing team. You pretty comprehensively slated Firewatch in your review in October 2016, so you could be forgiven for assuming I wish to defend it – and I suppose in part that I do – but not, on this occasion, because I disagree with anything you say. Rather, I feel there is merit to the game beyond its rather shocking array of flaws.

The biggest surprise for me in Firewatch is that it was made by people with a background in game development, since playing it I would have sworn that at least one Hollywood screenwriter was involved in the writing process. From top to bottom, almost every design decision seems to flow from that shallow perception of the merit of games shared by most screenwriters, namely an array of choices presented to the player, none of which express any tangible agency at all. The player’s greatest option for self-expression is which cap to wear next – and since these are encountered one at a time, the answer is of course ‘all of them, as you find them’. It is very much that kind of game: the team know everything the player is going to do in advance, except which photos will be taken on the disposable camera, which of course has no effect upon anything. Even deciding where to watch the sunset in a GTA game feels more involved.

Alas, I cannot disagree with your assessment of the story overall, which seems to attempt the same sort of bait-and-switch as Gone Home, except in Firewatch the illusion of an absurdly implausible conspiracy is revealed to be an even more ludicrous situation that strains credibility far more than the game story can hope to bear. Despite this, the dialogue (as you admit) is actually rather good, and the voice talent delivers it well, even if the ‘choices’ offered are largely meaningless throughout. Add to this an attempt at a genuinely mature theme, namely the horrifying situation facing someone whose spouse develops early-onset dementia, and I would defend Firewatch in spite of its abundant weaknesses as a genuine attempt to escape the infantile storytelling standards of videogames where ‘mature’ is typically a phrase used to warn about the kind of humour that amuses teenage boys. That it falls below the standards we would expect in literature, theatre, or film ought to be weighed against the very possibility that such a comparison could be entertained, however fallaciously. Hitchcock it certainly isn’t. But at least it aspires to be more than a recycled action movie.

The most disappointing aspect of Firewatch is also something remarked upon in your critique: that it purports to offer you hiking in the wilderness, yet our character is entirely incapable of doing more than walking along pre-prescribed pathways. I found myself endlessly galled at the thought that someone who has chosen a life outdoors would be unwilling, much less unable, to scale rock faces even my youngest son would find unchallenging. No, out of some mistaken commitment to a concept of immersion rooted solely in animation fidelity, the game constantly uproots its plausibility by making the player climb the same rock objects again and again rather than let them for one moment experience the wilderness as something wild. And yet my experience of national parks in the US has often been of this kind of ‘packaged nature’: pre-prescribed paths in a ring-fenced theme park for nature. Hiking on trails outside such spaces offers a wildly different and far more rewarding experience, but in selling us the shrink-wrapped version of the natural world, Firewatch is only echoing the conceit that lies behind a great many such places in the United States, entailing the same kind of lie about humanity’s relationship with the world around it. It is unfortunate that the game does so in earnest, and thus can make no deeper point about the artificiality of these stage-managed encounters with the wild.

Yet despite this glaring and saddening failure to offer any freedom to the player, or any authentic experience of hiking, there is something astonishing about Firewatch that does not even warrant a mention in your discussion: this world is beautiful. Lighting and colour is used throughout to create breathtaking vistas that almost make the player forget (or perhaps, fail to notice) the unnecessary constraints imprisoning all movement to the official pathways. If we let ourselves exist in these manicured spaces solely through our eyes and ears, if we ignore all the pretensions of the story, if we set aside our gall at two female ‘characters’ whose primary purpose appears to be to titillate male players with their overemphasised yet unseen nudity, if we just enjoy the sights and sounds of the forest presented to us, Firewatch is triumphantly beautiful. To not mention this – or perhaps, to fail to suspend critical judgement long enough to allow yourself to enjoy this – is something akin to a critical failure. Thus while you avoid the traps of other reviewers in your insightful and accurate criticism of the game’s failings, I think perhaps that you also fail to appreciate why the walking simulator can be so powerful an aesthetic experience. I do not doubt you have an explanation, a reason this aspect of the game does not work for you – yet I fear at heart it is simply that you have not allowed yourself to engage with this game in a way that would make this appreciation possible. You are so perceptive about the myriad failures of artistry in the media we call videogames, I wonder sometimes if your critical insight is also blocking you from appreciating some of our greatest successes too.

It is a theme I also wish to pursue in the second half of this letter.

Next week: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

A Republic of Bloggers letter written to Jed Pressgrove of Game Bias and Stop the Pressgrove. Feel free to join in with our discourse via comment or blog post.


Underground Gamers

Joypad Graffiti.2-1

Over on ihobo today, I wrote something about gamers. I know, I know, the word now makes some people cringe, but I'm not one of them. I never think the way to deal with a community problem is to pretend that the community doesn't exist any more or (worse) that is shouldn't exist any more. I really don't know why anyone could ever think this would work, and communities - all communities - are something too valuable to trash indiscriminately.

What I'm interested in exploring in this piece is the relationship between those gamers who are committed to the AAA industry, and those that are just as interested (or more interested) in the oddities on the fringes. Here's an extract:

The players of the underground are free range gamers – they won't be stuck in AAA cages, they have to wander through the entire landscape of games, searching for interesting, novel, unusual, and undiscovered oddities. Without them, we'd all miss out on so many of the fascinating curiosities that are hidden away in a market now so impossibly varied in its niches that nobody will ever again be able to claim to have played everything.

The piece ends with an offer to share anything interesting written on obscure games. I doubt anyone will take this up, but the offer is there! You can read the entirety of Underground Gamers over at ihobo.com.


Pokémon: What Nintendo Didn't Say...

Over at ihobo today, I put myself out on a limb and predict a new handheld device from Nintendo that literally nobody else thinks is possible. Check out my reasoning with Pokémon: What Nintendo Didn't Say... over at ihobo.com and see what you think!

Update: I took the post down for reasons explained in the comments, but you can still read the original article in the comments to this article, below.


The Language of Games

A reply to Chris Billow’s New Theory of Play: Playstates as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

MC Escher.Plane FillingII.1957Dear Chris,

Our disagreements about language are not something to be dismissed as ‘mere opinion’, but a valuable context in which we reveal our aesthetic judgements. Such was my argument in Implicit Game Aesthetics back in 2012, and this way of understanding our arguments about both ‘games’ and ‘art’ has served me well. This does not mean, however, that frameworks for delineating terms and concepts like your playstates theory, have no value. On the contrary: laying out clearly defined frameworks can be very helpful for having clarifying discussions.

In academic circles, this kind of constructed language is invaluable, and it also serves important roles in various practical domains. In both film production and film studies, a common language has been constructed that makes the ties between the academy and its associated industry in this case stronger, and helps ensure that everyone is talking about the same thing. How I wish the same were true of the games industry! We do have some common terminology – but almost all of this what we inherit from the tabletop game development scene of the 1970s and 1980s such as NPCs, scenario, campaign, with a few terms from the arcade like lives, levels, and high scores. The only more recent cases of terminology creeping in has been via hugely successful videogames: World of Warcraft gave us tank, kite, and (regrettably, in my view) mob.

Why has game development not formed a common language? There are several answers to this, but in the broadest strokes it all rests on the nature of the grassroots games industry. Even from the very beginning, film was a medium that required a significant investment of resources. This meant that the practices developed in an industrial context, and this facilitated a rapid and highly successful crossover into the academic world. As a result, the film industry and film studies developed a common lexicon that rapidly converged, and was then being taught to the new apprentices, regardless of how they were brought in. Theatre, as a pre-industrial form, had a classical form of apprenticeship, newcomers learning from the old hands: again, the practices could converge and then be passed on.

Games have had nothing of the kind. Whether we look at the commercial boardgames of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century, or the bedroom coders of the 8-bit era of videogames – or for that matter today’s Kickstarter boardgame community and indie developer scene – there has been no venue for apprenticeship, no basis for a common lexicon, no firm alliance between industry and academia. We invent the wheel and we reinvent it over and over again. To make matters worse, as the nerdiest medium thus far devised, game developers are obsessed with taking everything apart and putting it back together ‘right’, which is to say ‘in their own image’. We just don’t co-operate like other folks… although that doesn’t mean we can’t work together.

I only have to think back to the years I spent trying to fight for ‘cRPG’ instead of ‘CRPG’ – an utterly futile endeavour whichever way you look at it, and yet this mattered enormously to me at one point in my life. That may seem insane – it does to me these days! – but in my mind I was defending the priority of the tabletop role-playing game and its practices. There were, undoubtedly, better ways to do this. But for some queer reason this battleground became one of many I took upon myself. (I also, incidentally, fought hard for the use of the third person singular gender neutral ‘they’, long before this had become a point of political correctness – and indeed went to war with the QA department on Discworld Noir over this very topic.)

Your playstates model strikes me as very much the same kind of tilting at windmills, although it is much better formed than many of my own quixotic pursuits. As I mentioned to you previously in this regard, your model stands or falls upon whether the person encountering it holds the same aesthetic values about ‘game’ that drive you to characterise games in terms of measurement. I personally find this a fascinating perspective, particularly because I have not encountered this before. But of course, that suggests that you won’t be winning over converts very easily… not least because, nerd-windmills being what they are, every person who is likely to care this much about ‘game’ has their own definition, and their own reasons why they understanding it as ‘the right one’.

If this sounds negative, it shouldn’t – there are several things that I particularly admire about your playstates approach. First and foremost, that it is a trait-based theory and not a typology (as I mentioned to you previously), since this immediately hurdles the most fatal problems with definitions of ‘game’ that we usually encounter. Chris Crawford’s logic gates are at the opposite extreme here, and I find it fascinating that this is an influence behind your thought here. Secondly, that your model draws attention to the experience of make-believe as a playstate (Role-plays). As I have all too frequently complained, the game studies crowd is deeply committed to fiction denial, and constantly push systems (your Games) as much more important than fiction and imagining. I believe this is another example of aesthetic values drawing people into a particular way of seeing the world.

I fear many will part company with you at the point you distinguish ‘game’ from ‘video game’ (I so want to type ‘videogame’ here… another battle I have vainly fought, and I’m so glad Ian Bogost converged with me on this one.) Thus you can identify, say, Dear Esther as a ‘video game’  but say too that it is ‘not a game’ (because characteristic of your technical term ‘game’ is measurement). I too part company with you here, but in the opposite direction. Although your position is internally consistent, I can find no reason to restrict ‘game’ as a concept to measurement when every child in every English-language country says they are playing a game when they enter into a Role-play playstate. I feel, as I have mentioned to you before, there might have been an argument for replacing your technical term ‘game’ with another word.

But of course you didn’t. You couldn’t. Because deep in your aesthetic appreciation for games (whether as ‘games’ or as ‘role-plays’ or, I’ll wager, as ‘sports’) is the importance of the measurement element of the play experience. I think the systems crowd would be sympathetic, if it wasn’t for the fact that every single one of them wants to put down their own definitions and boundary conditions because… nerds.

You have to love the nerds, or I do at the very least, not least because I have been one all my life and see neither shame nor insult in claiming the term. It is just like the gay community successfully claiming ‘queer’ – the cleverest PR stunt in my lifetime! And oh how I chuckled when the aesthetic insult ‘walking simulator’, levelled at titles like Dear Esther and those other games that move much less confidently in the same direction, was similarly claimed by fans of the form as a badge of honour. Here is a valuable lesson in language. You don’t change language by laying out a new map of the territory. You change language through a game of aikido-like legerdemain, where the rival move is turned against itself. I wonder: is that game part of your playstate of ‘sport’, or is there a whole other playstate missing from your model…?

With unlimited love,

Chris.

Any and all replies and commentaries, through blog-comments, blog-posts, twitter etc. are welcome! The opening image is MC Escher’s 1957 lithograph Plane Filling II. No copyright infringement is intended.


Pokémon GO Update: The Highs, the Lows

Over at ihobo today, yet more Pokémon GO reporting, this time looking at how the player community is adjusting to the update after a week.

Why so much on this game? Well, partly because this update is a big deal for Niantic and I want to chip in some professional perspective on it. Mainly because it’s a rare case of something having happened in the games industry that I’m actually interested in, so it’s a good opportunity to rebuild my blogging momentum. I have other blog pieces in production at the moment, but I’m struggling to get the time to work on them. Conversely, cranking out a thousand words on the game I’m playing with my kids is relatively easy win for me... it keeps me blogging, at that’s valuable to me in and of itself.


Interview for Pop Philosophy

PPh logo

Delighted to report that the Russian website Pop Philosophy has an interview with me, in both Russian and English, talking about games, philosophy, Discordians, and cyber-squirrels. Here’s an extract:

There are those who suggest we are living in a golden age of videogames, and if you look at the volume of titles today there is certainly a huge amount out there. But for me, really interesting or engaging titles are few and far between. On the one hand, the upper end of the market, AAA console games, feels constricted by the size of the audience they need to court. It is amazing what is being made now, but we’re deeply into iterating upon the existing player practices. If you wanted to find original concepts, AAA would be the wrong place to look. But then I look at what the indie community delivers and, unsurprisingly, they are making the games they want to play, which are mostly just iterating on the existing player practices too but with less budget and so more rough edges. There’s greater emphasis on puzzles, some ugly violence in the corners, a lot of half-executed retro sensibilities…it’s not lacking inventiveness so much as it has no aesthetic ambition. It’s too safe. It mostly bores me.

Check it out over at the PPh website!


Lessons from the MUD

AccursedLandsAnonymity and technology mix badly. While you are required in most countries to pass a test of skill with cars, our most dangerous tool, and even the US licenses and records the identity of firearm owners, any fool can appear on Twitter or Facebook with a fictional or falsified identity and act abusively towards the cyborgs they encounter there. However, eliminating anonymity by forcing the use of public identities is a heavy-handed solution that would almost certainly prove insufficient for eliminating the problem, as Brian Green has carefully outlined. But there are lessons that can be learned from earlier digital public spaces that offered anonymity but had less of a problem with abuse, and this can put a different slant on these kinds of problems.

The Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs, began as spaces for creative adventures, greatly conditioned by the play of the pivotal tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. These imaginary worlds were entirely made of databases of text, arranged to create the impression of connected rooms and spaces, within which players could move around and encounter one another. Players would join a MUD using network protocols from the early days of the internet, creating an account with a name that would become their identity in the shared space of the game world. The MUDs would go on to provide the basis for graphical games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft that would achieve tremendous commercial success.

A player coming to a MUD for the first time was likely to have been invited by someone else, and as such was not strictly alone. Nonetheless, players typically entered the text world as individuals, and since players would connect at different times they were often (if not always) alone. Starting players were always unknown to the existing players, so there was always an element of uncertainty about the arrival of someone new. Nonetheless, the community surrounding each MUD, which was typically a few hundred players or so, generally welcomed newcomers, and there was an air of hospitality extended in most MUD communities. Abusive players, then as with in the larger digital spaces today, were the minority, and would quickly come into conflict with the more responsible players who would report them to the administrators, typically entitled Wizards.

The Wizard system provided legislative, judicial, and executive power within the MUD. While the first Wizards would be those who set up the software and provided the hardware to run the game, many MUDs used a democratic system to elect additional Wizards, who worked as a collective to maintain order and community. Legislative acts concerned the code of conduct that applied, and thus set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour – such matters were always resolved by the Wizards working together, and generally involved consulting the wider community of players as well. Judicial and executive power was expressed by taking action against troublemakers – in many MUDs, miscreants could be ‘toaded’, which reduced a character to a powerless amphibian. Wizards would hold tribunals in this regard to determine the justice of any such punishment meted out. Although I have heard of some instances of ‘corrupt Wizards’, my own experiences showed the Wizard system to be highly effective at minimising abuse in MUDs.

While on the surface, MUDs were play spaces, in practice the division between game and communication system blurred. This was especially so because MUDs provided the first networked text communication system that didn’t require manual delivery, like a telegram. As such, many attracted a community of ‘players’ using them solely as a chat interface. These were the original chatrooms, since players would typically congregate in a room of the MUD’s fictional world to engage in conversation. This occasionally caused tension with other members of the community who were using the game differently, but for the most part it was a fact of life in MUDs that some people were there solely to chat, and facilities to do so were expanded in the code for MUDs as the 1990s progressed.

The MUD was the direct precursor to Facebook and Twitter, which descend from earlier copies of the chatroom concept, such as AOL’s offering, which lacked the fictional world but kept the name. Yet abuse in MUDs was comparatively rare, and rapidly resolved by Wizards whenever it occurred. Anonymity may still have fostered abuse, but the systems were in place in MUDs both to guard against it, and to discourage it from happening in the first place. The most effective deterrent against online abuse is community – and the MUDs fostered this far more than the latest digital public spaces.

Thus while a new MUD player might arrive alone and unknown, they were never unguarded – both in the sense of protected from the abuse of others, and watched for signs of conducting abuse. Conversely, a ‘tweep’ (as a user of Twitter is colloquially termed) is alone, unknown, and essentially unguarded – and these are the optimal conditions for abuse to fester. Twitter has an abuse reporting system, but it is distant and bureaucratic, with no community to manage the warnings and reporting, and no community-engaged Wizards to act as magistrates.

Here we have three different senses of ‘anonymous’, all of which contribute to cyber-disdain, and thus a greater risk of cyber-cruelty. To be alone in a digital public space is to lack a community, and crucially ‘follows’ and ‘friends’ do not mark the authentic social bonds of a community relationship but merely an open communication channel. To be unknown is to be anonymous in the sense of having a concealed identity – a situation that fosters abuse if it is not offset by community relations. Lastly, unguarded marks an invisibility to the systems of justice within a digital public space – a situation worsened by being unknown, and by being alone.

Thus Facebook’s requirement to use conventional identities (to eliminate being unknown) is insufficient to stop abuse, both because its users are mostly alone and unguarded, and also because the size of its membership means that with random encounters, cyborgs are still effectively unknown to each other. This is the fertile soil in which abusive behaviour online grows: as the cybernetic networks increase in scale, community is unsustainable since humans can only sustain viable communities at a scale of hundreds and never at a scale of billions. Two Facebook users, even with public identities, are effectively unknowable to each other – and nothing much can solve this problem short of managing encounters in a way that most would find intolerable. Guarding against problematic behaviour is more tractable when there is a village-scale community to engage, respond, and react – while at planetary-scale even robot-assisted magistrates are rendered impotent by the sheer scope of the network.

Anonymity is the root of online abuse, but there are at least three senses of this term that matter. We tend to focus on unknown anonymity, and thus miss the importance of alone anonymity and unguarded anonymity. My emphasis on being alone may seem misplaced. For instance, in his discussion of the problems of anonymity, Brian reports that “people in groups are more likely to transgress.” I agree with this claim, even though this may seem to run counter to my suggestion that alone anonymity is a key part of the problem. However, Brian’s point concerns ‘mob mentality’, and a mob is not a community in any relevant sense. Indeed, precisely what makes a mob dangerous is that people are alone together when they are a part of it – and this anonymity of the crowd (which also operates fairly innocently in audiences for musicians and so forth) becomes dangerous when the people concerned are also unknown and unguarded, as happens all the time in our digital public spaces.

When Sherry Turkle raises concerns about the way we are alone together online, she is not talking about the mob as such, but her work also emphasises this same concern: the undermining of authentic community by the current design features of the new communication systems. Yet different designs will produce different results. It is notable that blogs, which assign executive power to the blog owner (and thus are close to unguarded), and are ambiguous on the question of being unknown (since it is the blog owner’s choice how they identify) still manage to be less of a locus of abuse than the large-scale digital public spaces since bloggers are never alone. Forums tolerate contributions that are alone and unknown because they are not unguarded, thanks to the presence of moderators who can work effectively because the scale of the network of contributors is manageable. When a moderator ‘knows that such-and-such is a troublemaker’, they mean that particular cyborg is not anonymous in the sense of being unguarded. Different solutions to fostering cyber-respect (and minimising cyber-cruelty) hinge upon the different senses of anonymity.

What does not work – indeed, cannot work – is expecting our robots to plug the gap caused by scaling networks beyond human capacity to form a viable community. Abuse will remain endemic on Facebook and Twitter for as long as their cyborg participants can be functionally alone, effectively unknown, and inadequately guarded. If there are solutions to this problem, and it is not clear that there are, the most important lessons to learn are those revealed by the stories of the MUDs, the pioneering digital public spaces, the first cyborg communities of their kind.

With grateful thanks to Peter Crowther, both for feedback on this piece, and for running UglyMUG, a game that changed both his life and my own. Also, my thanks to Brian Green for his outstanding summary of the relationship between privacy and anonymity, which this piece responds to.