A lesson in dissection, of the messy and emergent kind

cranky

We all like to be Cranky sometimes.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here. 

Now that I have a small window of free time, and since that small window is rapidly closing as we speak, I might as well give some voice to some core ideas I’ve been experimenting with for the past three months or so. New conduits through which I can channel my thoughts – in this case, the role of the puppet in video game play and the formation of communities around games – help me shape and reshape how I view the media I play, and I welcome these opportunities with open arms. Even if they take the form of nebulous video game reviews that straddle the boundary between reasoned complaint and response baiting directed at angry fans.

The article I’m referring to is Michael Thomson of Forbes Magazine’s review of Dark Souls II, which has propelled itself through the Internet grapevine thanks to its inflammatory title “Is Dark Souls II The Worst Game Ever Made?” Of course not, we say to ourselves. One only need to look at the throne of shovelware garbage atop which the NES sits, for example, to remind ourselves that there are definitely worse things out there than the latest installment in a notoriously-difficult series that is also known for rewarding careful manipulation of in-game rules to achieve success and personal gratification (most of the time). But I’m not here to refute Mr. Thomson’s opinion of a video game. After wading through his mire of figurative puffery, one schlorping step at a time, I’m here to discuss two misconceptions in his argument, two that I feel must be examined not just within the context of his review but as relevant to what it means to play a game itself. I’ll pick out chunks and display them below so you don’t have to go hunting them down, mostly because I want to save the reader the time and effort of having to dissect his muddled prose. Then I’ll expand upon their general conceits.

Part I: Puppetry

Let’s first take a look at Thomson’s experiences with the drudgery of learning the game:

The first time I played the game it took me 90 hours to finish, and the last time I ran through it took me around three hours, having learned every hidden trick and obscure mathematical relation it hid beneath its combat puppetry against horned demons and scorpion pyromancers with pornografied breasts.

[…]

There is no intuitive logic to these rules as they are broken down across a constantly shifting chart of variables. They cannot be intuited or thought through without empirical labor, switching back and forth between menus, equipping and unequipping weapons, moving points around, committing materials toward upgrading one piece of equipment while only guessing as to whether the time, currency, and scarce alloys used to strengthen it are being wasted on something suboptimal. And even once all these variously opaque systems have been uncovered, scored into one’s unconscious memory somewhere between instinct and avarice, they suddenly stop working as they had hours earlier. The rule undoes itself as soon as you’ve learned it.

[…]

It’s the worst and least ethical form of play, taking the naturally constrained single encounters of Chess or Go into the heart of an infinity spiral rotating out from the center of a box of microprocessors built out of a grand network of exploitive labor practices around the world, creating a transfixing hallucination sublimely disassociated from the networks of labor required to produce it.

[…]

It was only play when we were being punished for failing to precisely comply with an invisible set of rules communicated through a rosetta of numbers, glyphs, and fragmented fictions. There’s nothing produced, nothing furthered, nothing questioned, nothing intimated–there are only commands, and the community they call into being, each wrestling with the system’s inflexibility in the most personal way possible.

Here, Thomson explicates the basic relationship between player and game content. When learning a game, players maneuver the hallways of game rules and mechanics. They experiment with the engine physics and calculate the interactions between sets of numerical values, which form the basis of taking damage from a monster, dealing damage to an opponent, how the coordinates of a “hitbox” interact with those of a “hurtbox” to trigger a reaction within the game’s code that manifests on-screen as ‘taking damage,’ etc. They might also explore the ways in which certain dialogue paths are chosen, or they might equip certain articles of equipment to achieve maximum efficiency in beating the game. Likewise, they may do so to simply derive maximum personal enjoyment from seeing their character dressed in pretty clothes. Thomson labels these relationships an “infinity spiral,” and though I won’t touch upon the second half of that third paragraph due to it reeking of emotional bait, I do wish to discuss the notion of puppetry in the game world. 

Thomson seems to have an issue with the “empirical process” of experimenting with the “invisible” rules set forth by a game’s developer. In turn, he seems to have a problem with video games in general. He argues that the act of digital puppetry – of controlling a self-defined character in the gamespace through physical controller – acts as a kind of facade, a folly that conceals meaningless code. Yet folly is in the very nature of puppetry. Puppetry is nothing more than the interaction with physical (or virtual) rules to instill a symbolic figure, whether it be a physical puppet or an on-screen avatar, with personal meanings, associations, and symbols as a kind of muse through which the player can situate themselves within the world of the story being told. In turn, the player is able to reflect on the symbols he or she attaches to that avatar and confront their own desires, their own methods of solving problems, and other ways in which they deal with day to day living on a cultural level. 

When you play a game, you willingly submit yourself to illusion, representation, rich cultural symbols and antecedents that stand in for reality and conceal the handiwork of stick, string, and code beneath the puppeteer’s medium. This is the inherent entertainment of puppetry: allowing yourself to be deceived by a lack of “intuitive logic” so that you may recognize and rethink the symbols contained wherein. The collection of data that makes up a game is pointless, after all, until the player applies his own meanings to it. Giving life to the puppet world takes place through kinesthetic interaction with controller which, in turn, elicits reactions within the game code, the results of which are displayed on-screen. So I am unsure how Dark Souls II is any different from every single other video game in that regard. 

What determines a game’s quality, rather, is how it conceals that folly. Does it refute it by creating a photorealistic world filled with rich lore and structure (Thomson’s strongest point is that he cannot situate himself within the game world of Dark Souls II because its backstory is apparently incoherent)? Does it evoke associations with our childhood by presenting an intentionally-crude artstyle like the claymation of Doug TenNaple’s The Neverhood or like the recent trend of independently-produced video games that adopt 8-bit aesthetics? What contexts are being created out of those symbols by the players? After all, the player must give his creations love and life in order to fully enjoy the gameplay experience, and it is when a game fails to encourage the player to do so through how it presents the game world and its rules that it truly fails. Which brings me to my next point:

Part II: Community

Thomson complains that “One is never safe [in DS2], and one can never trust the particular splinter of skill one’s mastered, always conscious of how many other possible splinters there are left to study.” As a response to these fractal splinters, players form communities to share their own experiences and methods for circumventing or solving these “splinters” of player progression.

The game’s vagaries were so successful in triggering a masochistic cycle of obsession that a large community of players formed around it, sharing secrets and walk-throughs of advance copies imported from Japan, helping one another with the labor of unwrapping the game’s opaque systems. What did the “poise” category do, for instance? What was the difference between a counter hit and a critical hit? What does it mean when a weapon says it has “B” scaling with Dexterity? Why does the rate of bonuses derived from scaling suddenly seem to stop after a certain threshold?

[…]

On the contrary, it would be worse, horrible, stupid, mendacious complexity, maximally toxic in its newness, each torturously undiscovered secret and statistical twist energizing the swarm of play workers eager to find friendship and community in demonstrating their worth with game achievement and documentation.

[…]

Dark Souls II encourages a kind of amazed storytelling about how it was one managed to survive. The game is so large and hostile to the player’s presence every moment feels like a precursor to some cruel twist or miraculous delivery from unexpected doom that could merit retelling. Victories and discovery only become meaningful to an audience who knows how much work must be put into them, and so these player tales are implicitly clouded by the unspoken murk of failure and defeat. This structure of play is ideally matched with a culture of emotionally and socially isolated individuals—still primarily men—who rush toward non-intimate prompts for social exchange, creating the impression of a community without requiring any reciprocal vulnerability nor emotional obligation.

“Maximally toxic in its newness” aside, we see here that Thomson dislikes the idea of communities forming around games. He sees discussion groups as a form of self-posturing, a way to display badges of pride for having conquered a coalescence of script and code that manifest as something players label as “hard.” They are a way for players to enact personal dramas where they can receive much-needed sympathy from others and are, as Thomson seems to suggest, a gross and selfish way of bonding with other fellow humans through tales of suffering and strife.

This view of gaming communities is maximally ignorant. It debases the generative aspects of forming community. Because Thomson’s argument grounds itself in portraying players as “play workers eager to find friendship and community in demonstrating their worth with game achievement and documentation,” it in turn suggests that the formation of community in itself is a gross and selfish act. Gaming communities are instead arenas for self-situation in relation to the imposed puppet world of the video game. Sharing tips and tricks among fellow puppeteers, so to speak is a mutual form of interaction in which one player says to another “We speak the same language, how do you interpret this part of the game?” By mutually sharing one’s personal examination of how to manipulate the in-game puppetry, players form group identity that helps define themselves as members of sharing the past (in the frozen state of the game world) brought into the present (between other players). As such, it allows players to track their own personal growth in learning how to play a game, or how to perform the puppetry of the game in a way unique to themselves by using self-found exploits in the game code. When a player sees the fruits of their efforts manifest as approval or recognition from others, he or she feels gratified. Likewise, when a player is insulted or criticized for using a sub-optimal method for beating the game, the player may strive to find a better method, learn another’s method, attempt to prove why his or her method is viable, and so on.

Peer-to-peer discussion plays a pivotal role in constructing competitive gaming communities. Speedrunners play the same game and perform the same actions thousands of times over and over, day in and day out. Rote repetition is central to why Thomson sees Dark Souls II as “the worst game”; to him, Dark Souls II seems to be an endless slog through worlds lacking textual roughage. But once again, a game’s quality lies in how it conceals, subverts, or transforms repetition into a meaningful activity. Speedrunners are constantly seeking out new interpretations of how to perform their on-screen puppetry by discovering new techniques used to cut down on the time taken to beat a game. Doing so often requires a player to spend countless hours performing those same actions in each play session, or may prompt them to dig even further into the game by using programs to view how many hits it takes to defeat a boss, how a certain glitch works, how big a bosses’ attack is, etc. Fighting game players use the same on-screen avatars in every match on the same stage or selection of stages over the course of ten years or more, yet they do not grow bored of the game because the dynamic of multiple players performing acts of ‘meaningless’ puppetry takes on new and emergent forms with each playsession. 

When these methods of puppetry are shared with fellow players, it lends that game texture. The game gains a new set of symbols associated with its being; it becomes more active, bustling, and alive. Like how a good novel or film carries with it the numerous interpretations given to it by the literary or cinema community over the years, good games carry with them the strategies, exploits, notable players, and more that give them a rich presence in the minds of players. In essence, the games adopt a face. They might even be said to become living, though abstract, beings in the minds of players, if we are to take Latourian metaphysics into account. Such a transformative process is leagues beyond a simple commiseration between hovels of masochistic, pathetic human beings, as Thomson states. It is a confluence of individual meanings through shared victories and deafeats as players search for ways to place themselves within the world of the game that gives it body.

This is not to say that video games are purely textual, for that is an outdated notion that hearkens back to the primordial soup of video game analysis. But both texts and video games operate under similar rules, and we can draw very basic parallels between the two.

If anything, Mr. Thomson’s article can be seen as a case study in the traps that arise when studying video games, where a reviewer may search for “psychoanalytic backdrops” in a game’s characters where there is none, and thus may become disappointed with a game. Whether Thomson intended for his article to be satirical or not is up to the reader, because I frankly don’t care. It’s not relevant to how we can draw the most positive meanings out of his prolix behemoth. 

Or maybe I do care, just a little bit. But not enough to fall for whatever traps he has set up in that mélange for unwary readers.

Remember that my article here is not intended to review Dark Souls II, nor is it intended to prove why Mr. Thomson’s opinions might be ‘wrong.’ I have not played the game myself yet, and likely won’t any time soon due to a combination of busy schedule and potato-powered computer. Rather, I am contending a few kernels of cynical misinformation embedded within this morass of clever prose and misdirection which bears an appropriately-simplistic title. I feel that these kernels of misinformation must be exposed, scrutinized, squelched, and ultimately be hung in front of the proverbial city gates if we as game players are to ever see video games as more than just playthings, as just bodies containing text without performative or self-situating significance. In its simplest form, my brief and admittedly-reductive analysis of a pool of nothing is intended to warn readers of the pitfalls of Thomson’s argument (if there is one beyond “this is a bad game”) and how they diminish the role of the video game in how we form relationships with the technologies we produce and experience in day-to-day life.

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