Thursday, January 31, 2013

Advanced Chess Simulator

While musing in bed at 4AM yesterday morning, I realized that there were no chess simulations that really captured what I feel is essential to the experience of playing chess.

The night before, I'd attended Courtney Stanton's wonderful Women in Games: Boston talk about building games in Twine.  Truth be told, I already had a few open twine projects, slowly spiraling out of control.

Yesterday I decided to start and complete the game in a day. I started in the morning before work and ended after work.

I've solicited feedback from my wife and a few friends and will probably make a few revisions before the weekend.

But I started and posted a game.

It's here.

Mollusk Gone Bad presents:
ADVANCED CHESS SIMULATOR

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I worked as a mover for a few summers. At the time a pretty huge computer company was downsizing, and I spent most of my days moving equipment and boxes from abandoned offices into new, smaller offices. 

The people I worked with seemed pretty OK. There were a few fathers and sons, the younger guys would sometimes fly off the handle, but mostly everyone just wanted to do their jobs, go home, and get drunk, usually in that order. I saw a few explosions of violence around perceived pecking order that shocked me, but they were rare and the older guys usually kept it in line with merciless teasing of both parties for about a week after any incident.

Then we spent some time moving things around in an actually-occupied office building. I wasn't at all surprised when talk turned to loud, frank and obscene evaluations of the fuckability of any given woman who strayed into the sight of the movers. This happened, I knew, especially when a group of poorly-paid and disempowered male laborers comes into contact with comparably wealthy, white collar women, many of whom are giving them orders. It's about power and asserting dominance and so on and while it made me uncomfortable and there's plenty to address there, this isn't really about that.

This is about the day the sex talk became violent sex talk. I think what set it off was that a cocksure young mover got rebuffed by a secretary that he thought was "in his league", but I was never altogether certain. Because all I heard the rest of that day from the young guys were a bunch of horrific, cannibalistic rape fantasies. Serial-killer-level descriptions of what they said they wished they could do to the bodies of the women in the building, laughing about how they would violate their corpses, graphic depictions of how they'd team up to dismember and behead and fuck. This was pre-internet for me (Mosaic was the state-of-the-art browser), so maybe I'd have been less shocked if I'd grown up in an era where that kind of imagery was just considered online bravado.

I was shaken to my core. I'd thought of these guys as basically decent, and I kept running over the things I'd heard them say in my head. Maybe I was just sheltered, and this was just a breed of intentionally shocking humor I was unfamiliar with. Maybe this was a class issue and I didn't understand the kind of steam that you had to let off in a job like that. Maybe my humorlessness about fantasy sexual violence was a result of a puritanical upbringing. Maybe I should be embarrassed that I was so disturbed. I derided myself for being so easily shocked, I tried to take the perspective that it was silly to worry about this when people were really dying and raping and butchering elsewhere in America, not to mention the third world.

But really, if I was honest, what it felt like (what it still feels like) was that my previous fellow-feeling was an illusion. That these guys actually really hated women, viewed them as less than human, saw a day of loudly describing the graphic rapes and deaths and of every woman in the building as an appropriate reaction to a single "no," as something that was funny rather than abhorrent. Nothing I could muster could mask that simple fact; whatever else these guys were, wherever else they came from, whatever blind spots might have arisen from whatever cultures or subcultures they were raised in, whoever might have just been going along with it to fit in, every one was willing to openly and jovially express and elaborate on the fantasy that they could physically reduce a woman to her lifeless body parts and thus derive sexual gratification.

I spent the rest of the summer requesting assignments with the old guys. I didn't go back the next summer. I unsuccessfully tried to write about the sudden alienation I felt; the sense that suddenly I found myself among cackling sociopaths.

I've had echoes of that schism manifest themselves many times since, in casual bigotry or misogyny in conversation, online, the threats I see people receive when they speak out on women's issues or gay issues or race issues.

Today a game company pulled a PR stunt where they offered a figurine of a sexualized armless, legless, headless corpse as a collector's item bonus. Repulsive. And most of the predictable contrarian reactions to people's outrage were grotesque-but-boring semantic games or "maybe it's YOU who are inappropriate" kind of crap. But the ones who mustered that chill of alienation for me were the ones who started in with reactions like "sex sells," who immediately and fully recognized the violence, dehumanization, and sexualization in the figurine as of a piece with one another, and didn't see it as problematic. "That's society," they shrugged, and I find that reaction horrifying.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I spent Friday night finally playing through Christine Love's Analogue: A Hate Story. 

I failed to notice a key UI detail. You can click on a portrait of the AI character guiding you through the game to get commentary on whatever text log you're reading and to unlock additional texts. This is told to you explicitly, but I misread the icon and thought that its washed-out colors meant that it was inactive.  I spent more than a half and hour reading and rereading 5 text logs and a family tree to try to ferret out the true name of the "Pale Bride" and gain admin access to the in-game terminal.

It was a clear instance of misapprehending the rules of a game. I thought I'd stumbled into a sneaky logic puzzle, that I was expected to be deciphering a riddle with the barest of context and some very indirect clues. On a stray envelope I drew a second family tree from the one text log that described the rival family and tried resolved every relationship that could be resolved logic-puzzle style from the few fragments I had. I walked through each log and made sure I understood who the subject of every sentence was and what their relationship was to every other person I could see mention of.

After none of my attempts to guess the admin password panned out, I checked online for hints and was met by a slew of "you should have no problem getting to the end of this game" posts where I was expecting puzzle game style walkthroughs. I finally found a post suggesting that if I didn't know the password maybe I hadn't clicked on the portrait for every piece of text and I realized I hadn't done it for any of them.

This unlocked the game and I played through to an ending without getting stuck again. But the experience of grappling with that text changed my relationship with the game. I didn't skim any of the text logs from that point on. I had a detailed mental model that contextualized every character that got introduced or deepened. Every new log felt like a revelation. And even though there weren't any logic puzzles that relied on the kind of close reading I had assumed was necessary, I still engaged with the game as though there were. And the game is well enough written that this was very rewarding.

When I played through my first few Infinity Engine games in 2000, I paid careful attention to the in-game calendar/clock. It was very prominent. Except for a few hours of Daggerfall, I hadn't played a PC RPG since The Bard's Tale, but I'd read about how "sophisticated" they were compared to their console counterparts. I assumed that meant that the in-game times and dates were important. When people ascribed urgency to tasks or described impending events or menaces, I gave them credence and tried to glean WHEN these things would happen and handle them at or before the appropriate times. When I realized that the time and date were essentially meaningless except in a few cases, the games lost some of their richness for me.

I wrote this out because I wanted to figure out why in the former case my love of the game was increased, but in the latter case it was diminished. In both cases I misread the rules of the game I was playing and thought I was being asked to handle more complex challenges than were being presented. Both mistakes were also based on my misreading the significance of prominent UI elements.

I think it's because in the case of Analogue: A Hate Story the additional challenge functioned as a kind of membrane on top of the explicit role you're playing in the game. My misapprehension was consistent with the fiction in the game, and the fiction stretched as the mode of reading I was forced into was rewarded with internal consistency and tantalizing blind avenues. When I was freed to explore the rest, that time and effort didn't feel wasted. I never read any of the other logs as closely or as carefully, but I saw much more in them than I would have and I reread them to check my mental model against what was there. Apart from spending a little more time than I might have, no effort was wasted.

In the case of the Infinity Engine games, the Baldur's Gates in particular, when I realized that the clock was unimportant,  what broke was the not just the illusion that the simulation was tracking time in a meaningful way, but the whole illusion that events could happen in that world. The world of the fiction grew smaller and less reactive.

It's unfair to make this comparison; both are based on errors I made and have very little to do with the relative merits of 2 games in 2 very different genres with some very different verbs. But I think there are lessons there.