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An Aside – The Tyranny of Logic

Cause I feel like it.  That’s why.

Logic can be a very confusing word.  It’s held up as the gold standard of reasoning, yet oftentimes one person’s logic doesn’t match, or even contradicts, another’s.  The implication of the term, often unstated, is that there is one correct logical path and by claiming it, an individual is correct.  In this way two intelligent people with sound thinking skills may defend their view points as “logical” and thereby suggest that the other person’s thinking as “illogical”.  Here’s the thing: They both can be right.

Logic isn’t a term for the correct argument.  Logic is a chain of reasoning that leads to an answer.  Good logic is a chain of reasoning wherein each argument supports each succeeding argument ultimately supporting a comprehensive conclusion to an answer.  Note that there’s nothing about exclusively owning the right answer.  In a world of imperfect information (i.e. this one), it is quite possible to have to lines of equally strong logic that disagree on the answer to the exact same question.  Consider the following example:

A man is lurches down a sidewalk.  He reaches a lamppost, vomits, then stumbles into an alleyway before passing out.  What’s going on here?

 

Logic A: The man is drunk.  Alcohol neatly explains his poor walking, vomiting, and unconsciousness.

Logic B:  The man is sick.  His illness could cause all of the symptoms described.

 

Both are equally plausible lines of logic with equally strong supporting evidence.  One may be right, or even both could be wrong, but the logic that underpins them is roughly equivalent.  Yet I’ve often seen (and occasionally participated in) arguments where two or more people are vehemently defending their equal lines of logic to the exclusion of others.  The problem often stems from two misconceptions: exclusivity and confirmation bias.

The exclusivity problem is the one I’ve outlined above.  Logic has grown to include a Highlanderesqe principle.  THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE.  If you don’t accept my logic, then you must be denying my argument.  We never explicitly state it that way, but when someone else proposes an alternative line of logic, the presumption is that they’re undermining our own.  If we accept that, absent a conclusive answer, multiple lines of logic can be equally valid, then we can hopefully work to find the answer instead of just arguing about it.

Just kidding; we still have to deal with confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is the mental shortcut wherein humans overvalue supporting information for our beliefs and discount contradictory information.  The more committed we are to a particular belief, the more pronounced the confirmation bias becomes.  Even if we accept that there are multiple, plausible lines of logic, we will still try to prove our particular line simply because it’s the theory we came up with.  This is the tyranny of logic.  The, often subconscious, belief that our logic is the right logic and the lengths we’ll go to prove it.

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Opinion – World building is tough

A little bit of sugar helps the ridiculously complex narrative go down.

World building is tough.  Adding something on to the tasks video games must complete (controls, gameplay, graphics, sound, art design, etc) seems cruel when many games can’t even get the basics right.  Even so, if a game wants to draw the player into the world of the game, that world needs support.  The player must appreciate its intricacies and be intrigued by its mysteries which requires considerable support throughout the entire game.  The variety of gameplay types compounds the difficulty of world building.  One size does not fit all.  Depending on the type of game, the developer must approach world building in a different way.

RPGs and open world games

In many ways, RPGs and open world games have it easiest.  These styles of game, regardless of genre, tend to have a slower pace, more time to explore locations, and a greater emphasis on story telling.  This allows developers to give the player time to actually walk around the world and interact with its inhabitants.  Through conversations, exploration, ambient noise, and questing, developers can overtly and subtly interweave information about their world into every facet of the game.  Even with all of the available opportunities, some prefer to shove exposition dumps down the player’s throats.  This should be resisted.  With the many ways to draw the player into the world, developers should limit lectures on history, culture, or any other aspect of the game world to sideshows for interested players or only when the situation absolutely necessitates it.  Exposition dumps only appeal to the devoted while even casually interested players tire of reading when they should be playing.  Where possible, the developer should work world building in a way that works with gameplay rather than conflicts with it.

FPS

The pace of a first person shooter often dictates the way it builds its world.  For the fast paced shooters, the developer can’t let the player stop and investigate their surroundings.  The narrative of the environment must be told primarily through the visual elements because the player won’t have the time to stop and absorb text or conversation.  Even the visual cues lose subtlety for every second of gameplay devoted to speed.  FPS players may only appreciate the world in the corners of their vision or through stand out moments that temporarily pause the action.  Players can’t appreciate small details if the game moves too quickly for them to absorb putting a premium on blunt delivery mechanisms such as cutscenes or large visual elements.  Alternatively, some FPS’ take a slower pace allowing for more nuanced world building.  Audio logs detailing story can provide rich context for visual and aural cues, provided the player has time to listen to them.  Even a slow FPS tends to focus on visual cues due to the first person view, but it can augment those cues with the RPGs rich armory of tools.

RTS

The real time strategy game suffers from a decidedly different problem than the FPS.  Yes, RTS games are fast paced making nuanced approaches to world building difficult, but their real problem is that they, by necessity, must take place on a battlefield.  Whereas other games have gameplay justified reasons to explore peaceful areas, RTS games are defined by their combat.  If a player isn’t directing armies, then they aren’t playing the game.  World building in an RTS must rely on the same visual cues of the FPS, but also with a heavy dose of cutscenes.  Since the peacetime version of the game world is always off screen, the RTS must use the story breaks to fill in the non-fighting bits that it can’t communicate otherwise.

Action platformer

Action platformers are also severely limited by their style of gameplay.  In games about movement and action, there really isn’t much time to focus on the areas where those things are not.  Unlike RTS’, an action platformer developer can turn more peaceful aspects of the game into a world for the player to explore.  Hub worlds allow the player to absorb lore and engage with characters taking the load off of the environment.  A player can explore a ruined castle and then hear about the terrible battles that occurred there from a small town where they restock on items.  Developers never get the same level of depth that an RPG or open world game might, but they still have time to add in elements that engage the player with the world.

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Opinion – Theory of gaming social value

A theory of the perception of gaming value

Video games are fake, or so we’ve been told.  Talk to a non-fan about games and you may hear that they’d rather be doing something real rather than spend their days indoors.  The thinking seems to be that video games occupy a lesser tier of activities under things like travel or meeting friends.  Whereas these activities offer inherent worth, video games don’t provide as valuable experiences and, ultimately, lack meaning.  This is silly and, for that, I blame the 80s.

The original sin of video games is that they started off as toys.  Since the release of the Magnavox Odyssey, video games and consoles were designed and sold to kids as something fun to play with.  When the Nintendo Entertainment System caught fire in both homes and the public consciousness, it became the filter through which gaming was view for both the young players and the parents who purchased it.  This vision remains powerful as many people, thirty years on, still view video games as primarily a toy for kids enjoyed by socially unaware losers.  Don’t believe me?  The popular sitcom, Big Bang Theory, relies almost entirely on the stereotypes established during this era.  The characters are the grown up losers of the video game age.  Emotionally and socially, they are still the same awkward kids who played games indoors rather than play football or hang out with their friends.  It is through the perceived contrast of experiences that the idea of the “fake” experience developed.

Notice how games were contrasted with other childhood pursuits.  Games didn’t reflect the childhood of parents who spent their time outside or socializing for want of anything else to do.  To be sure, solitary pursuits such as reading did exist, but none of them were closely tied to the amazing time waster known as TV.  Whereas kids could potentially learn something from reading, TV watching rarely imparted anything of value.  Furthermore, video games did not appear to be a medium that could ever be more than what it was at that time: a toy.  Developers clearly saw their target market as (male) children and made games for that audience.  Both parents and kids only saw content with the philosophical implications of a Saturday morning cartoon show.  For parents (and kids) of the 1970s and 80s, video games were toys (strike one), tied to the TV (strike two), that contrasted to the more physical activities of an idealized youth (strike three).

Gaming evolved greatly during the 90s as the tools, developers, and audience matured.   Every aspect of gaming increased in complexity allowing for great diversity of gameplay and storylines.  Players who continued past the NES glory days enjoyed better developed experiences as their less committed peers sought other interests.  Meanwhile, parents continued to buy games for their kids thereby introducing another generation to gaming.  Unlike the gamers of the 70s and 80s, the gamers of the 90s and aughts enjoyed a more diverse ecosystem of games that gave them offerings as they aged and provided a wider variety of experiences such as multiplayer.  Unlike the previous generation of gamers, the 90s and aughts gamers kept playing games in greater numbers and, if they left, they did so with a stronger appreciation of what gaming could do.

The end result was a bifurcation of the perception of video games.  The parents and kids of the 70s and 80s saw video games as a shallow waste of time only enjoyed by socially awkward adults who never transitioned past playing with kid’s toys.  Gamers became a subset of losers without any particularly redeeming characteristics.  By contrast, the latter generations grew to appreciate video games as a normal part of their everyday lives.  Video games join movies, books, and music as just another medium to be viewed, discussed, and enjoyed.  Ultimately, the latter generations reflect where I believe gaming is headed.  Games will become, if they haven’t already, just a normal part of the collection of ways we interaction with friends, enjoy some down time, or view the great mysteries of life.

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No Man’s Sky and the Infinity Game

The beginning of the end

Imagine a game to end all games.  The only game you’ll ever need.  Each press of the “new game” button leads to a wildly different adventure with worlds, stories, and characters created anew.  Each world acting as infinitely expansive with a brilliant experience around every corner and, again, all in a single game.  It sounds fanciful, yes?  It is now, but No Man’s Sky represents a real step forward towards the creation of a true infinity game.

Plenty of games promise “a whole new game” every time a new round begins and, to a certain degree, they’re right.  Turn based strategy games, such as Civilization 5 or Master of Orion, have long delivered on creating new experiences by messing with computation heavy aspects of game design.  Many of these games create maps using a random number generator and build on the ever changing set of map creation variables to force new and interesting interactions.  This is an old template, but it shows the power of randomization in developing replayability in games.  It is, unfortunately, also very limited.  These games generate maps that are composed of contained variables.  A mountain in Civilization 5 always has the same characteristics regardless of the game.  Developer Firaxis may add additional requirements to the mountain tile placement (not near deserts, limiting the number that may be contiguous, etc), but each of these modifications are still fixed changes.  These kinds of map making algorithms are still limited by the simplistic variables they rely on.

No Man’s Sky appears to overcome that limitation.  Rather than rely on combining a selection of predefined traits, No Man’s Sky creates entire planets off of a formula that accounts for a far wider variety than the randomly generate maps of old.  In No Man’s Sky, a mountain can take on any number of traits and is different in key ways from every other mountain around it.  This removes random map generation strictly from simplistic turn based strategy maps and expands it into the far more complex world of 3D map generation.  Open world games can auto generate their maps rather than meticulously craft each piece.  To be sure, games like Minecraft already do this to a certain degree, but never to level that we’re seeing in No Man’s Sky.  This is a major step beyond.

Of course, world generation is only a part of the puzzle.  An infinity game would also need procedurally generated content to truly provide continuous unique experiences.  We’ve already seen some advances along these lines such as item generation in many loot based games.  Again, these are comparatively easy as they rely on a discreet set of variables that can be mixed and matched to provide new items.  The difficult part of procedurally generated content is always those parts of a game that don’t provide that set of variables.  No element is less well defined and more important than the narrative.  Unlike an item, good narratives rely on fuzzy variables such as complex characters, well written dialogue, and an interesting plot.  While elements of the narrative can be broadly categorized, they are never so well defined as to make for easy combining.  They exist in a subjective space that relies on personal preference as much as any ironclad rules of creation.  Even if we could come up with those ironclad rules, their repetition would make them boring and, therefore, no longer suitable.  Success in this area means reliably creating and mixing a host of elements that defy the consistent rules that most procedurally generated content relies on.

The next great challenge is to overcome those hurdles.  We’ve already seen a few hesitant steps.  Skyrim and Fallout 4 create auto generated quests to augment existing stories.  These quests fail in the areas we’d expect them to.  Where creativity, characters and plot are required, these quests fall flat.  Still, the rewards are substantial for whomever can resolve these problems.  With both randomly generated maps and stories, developers can create an infinite number of games within a game.  That sounds like a goal worth pursuing.

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Opinion – End of the World Addendum

Addendum:  The problem with saving the world is how it dilutes its component parts.  Individual elements of a story are all threatened, but never based on their individuality.  A character’s quirks and attributes aren’t relevant, but rather its idea of their existence in the threatened world that matters.  At the crucial moment of a game’s story, the developer encourages the player to disengage from the very aspect of the game they liked and, instead, encourages the player to look at the favored elements as part of an undifferentiated whole.  The special nature of the favored element is lost as are all the unique elements of the world.  They are subsumed into one relevant unit: that which is going to die.  From there, the player has less of a reason to care about the favored element’s demise as, in many ways, that element has already died.  Its intriguing parts are discarded so as to cram in all the elements that are threatened.  This is hardly a compelling way to end a story.

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Opinion – Logic in Games

Déjà vu for the first time.

At one point in my life, I applied for a job at a temp agency.  As part of the intake process, they had me test on various office programs.  After scoring well on the programs I knew, the instructor encouraged me to try accounting software that I had never touched before.  Ultimately, I agreed to do so and scored very well on a test for a tool that I had never seen.  In a seemingly unrelated situation, I was searching for a toilet in a new (to me) building in a foreign country.  After finding an out-of-order bathroom next to a staircase, I correctly guessed that there would be a similarly placed bathroom just one floor down.  Despite never having been in that building before, I successfully identified where to find one of its rooms.  What’s going on here?

We could assume that I am some kind of rare accounting-poop polymath, but let’s set that aside for the moment.  Instead, consider that many aspects of our lives are ordered according to an underlying logic.  According to some consistent rule, be it intentionally derived or naturally ordered, much of our environment follows a certain path.  I tested well on the accounting program because of its similarity to the underlying logic of other programs I used.  I found the bathroom by assuming that toilets next to staircases were centrally located and, therefore, a sound design for a building.  In short, I understood the logic of the thing I was analyzing and so made successful predictions about that thing.  Nothing I did is special.  The Albert Einstein of poop counting need not apply.

Video games are lousy with internal logic with much of it going unnoticed.  Think back to the level design of many games.  Most levels have a start, challenge rooms, and a boss at the end.   Play a million games and each one will follow a similar pattern.  As a result, the player can make guess about the level with only a little information.  For example, games often incentivize exploration by providing items and secrets for players who stray from the main path.  If a player reaches a fork and goes down a tine that continues for a while, they may then backtrack on the theory that the other path carries valuable loot.  On a related note, some games tell the player if the boss is in the next room.  The unstated, but widely understood, purpose of this is to let the player know that they should finish exploring the level (and collecting goodies) before challenging the boss.  The other unstated piece of logic is that no level requires the player to backtrack after beating the boss and therefore will remove the player from the dungeon once the fight is over.  Fight the boss and you’ll have to start at the beginning to get any leftover items.

Think about it and you’ll likely find other examples.  Unkillable bosses are usually fights the player needs to lose to advance.  Powerful units and attacks in a multiplayer game inevitably have some kind of counter.  The value of internal logic in games is that it smooths out the player experience and provides them with the tools to overcome challenges without being told the solution.  For an example of the first value, you need only look at the paragraph above.  By maintaining consistency, the player learns how the game is laid out and how to access the parts they like without getting bogged down in the parts they don’t.  Consistent control schemes across games (triangle for menu, x for confirmation, etc) is another example of this.  Internal logic also gives the player the means to overcome challenges.  By establishing consistent rules, the player learns a rule book to evaluate and exploit.  The player can then develop their own strategies and beat the game on their own terms.

Lacking internal logic can have the opposite effect.  Without a consistent, understandable rule set, the player is liable to become frustrated over seemingly insurmountable challenges.  The game appears random and the player’s losses appear arbitrary.  No one likes playing an unbeatable game.  The most obvious example of poor internal logic is adventure game logic.  Early adventure games contained puzzles ostensibly requiring clever solutions that were actually just random combinations of things.  An example of adventure game logic would be sailing a rubber ducky down draining water in a street that inspires a cat to chase after the ducky resulting in the revealing of the key to the next location.  There’s no logic for the player to grasp except combining all possible solutions until one turns out to be “correct.”

No one likes randomly mashing things together.  The joy of gaming is discovering the rules and applying it to a challenge.  Games with strong internal logic are a lot of fun to discover.  Those that aren’t, well, go the way of the old adventure games.

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Opinion – Fantasy is Lame

The noble warriors of light can go die.

Fantasy sucks.  Mostly.  There are always exceptions to broad brush statements like the one I just made, but fantasy mostly just sucks.  Compared to its sci fi contemporaries, fantasy books, games, and movies, lack originality.  Fantasy works are tied to popular models of the past that haven’t evolved in interesting ways in years.  Characters, storylines, and settings all feel like warmed over copies of previous works that were themselves warmed over copies of their predecessors.  If the genre is ever to grab my interest again, it’s going to have to change.

Ditching the medieval setting would be a good step.  Fantasy authors have tied dragons, magic, and powerful artifacts together with low technology, feudal kingdoms, and English accents for so long that it’s easy to forget that none of these elements ever have to be related.  By assuming they’re joined irrevocably, fantasy creators reinvent the same stale worlds that hold no wonder for experienced (or even amateur) audiences.  There is little joy to exploring yet another high fantasy world with castles and wizards.  Alternatively, consider some of the most successful fantasy works in the modern age: Harry Potter and The Magicians.  Both import fantasy into modern times and take great pains to integrate magic into more familiar settings.  These are fun worlds to discover because they feel fresh to the reader.  They also give their authors more flexibility in creating new characters and situations.  By making magic the purview of a select, secret group, Rowling and Grossman create magical microcosms where they can both delve into their unique magical worlds, but also show how they interact with a largely magically ignorant society.   Dropping the medieval from fantasy opened up creative space in a way that keeping the old setting never could have.

The traditional fantasy races could use an overhaul as well.  By sticking to elves, dwarves, dragons etc, fantasy also limits the kinds of adventures and concepts it can explore.  These races are well known quantities that offer few new experiences.  Having a greedy dwarf who is good with an axe or a wrench is about as uninteresting as it gets.  The traditional races are so overused that even new takes on them don’t feel new.  Bioware’s Dragon Age made elves the downtrodden poor of their fantasy world and it still felt too similar to the usual treatment of Elves as the highly advanced guardians of a declining civilization.  Flipping traditional elements of well-established tropes can be a good source of creativity, but not when the trope is so well worn that even the juxtaposition of old and new still feels too familiar.  Fantasy needs genuinely new races that use elements of the style in interesting, unexplored ways to break out of the samey rut it finds itself in.

Magic, one of the key elements of most fantasy, is another place to innovate.  As one of the defining features of the genre, magic serves as the lynchpin of a lot of fantasy worlds.  It manifests as an otherworldly force wielded by highly skilled individuals drawing upon mysterious forces.  There’s no reason why magic can’t be something else.  It could be a power source, a corrupting influence, or a gift from fickle gods.  It could be the foundation of a society until it’s discovered that magic comes from killing cute babies (Soylent Magic is made of people!  It’s made of people!).  Magic can be anything we want it to be, so there is no reason to keep it penned in to old dudes with pointy hats.  The medieval setting is the most limiting problem of fantasy, but magic has the most potential for interesting scenarios.

There are a number of creative ways to break fantasy out of its rut.  One potential solution is to encourage fantasy artists to create more high concept works.  High concept works adapt a genre’s style to explore an idea outside of the genre’s usual focuses.  For example, Blade Runner used androids as a vehicle to explore the nature of life and sentience and how it differs (or doesn’t) from the naturally occurring version.  The advantage of high concept works is that they force a genre to look outside of their usual tropes by prioritizing the message.  Parts of the familiar tropes that don’t work are removed and the remaining bits are adapted to serve a radically different narrative.  There’s nothing wrong with fun adventures, but they rarely innovate in such a way as to establish who new worlds and ideas to explore.

The solution is simply that fantasy must innovate.  Fantasy creators need to look at the very foundation of their genre and revaluate whether every brick really is as important as it seems.  When the genre does innovate, it succeeds (see previous examples).  Furthermore, the recent success of superhero movies suggests that elements of the fantasy playbook already work in the mainstream (replace science with magic and The Avengers is a game of D&D). There is considerable potential in fantasy so there is no reason why it should be sci-fi’s boring cousin.  I’d love to see something new.

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2 week break

Apologies, but life is getting too busy.  I’ll restart in two weeks.

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End of the Year

I’m taking the rest of the year off.  See you next year!

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Opinion – Understanding Meaning

Yeah, but what does it all MEAN?

One of the major themes coming from The Beginner’s Guide is the idea of meaning.  The game starts with the narrator explaining that he’ll be talking about the meaning of the games he shows and ends with him facing the ramifications of his own misinterpretations.  Taking the idea of meaning out of the context of The Beginner’s Guide, there is a lot to explore.  What is meaning?  Who defines it?  How does my 11th grade English teacher play into all of this?

By representing one of the approaches to meaning, that’s how.  English teachers of my school system proudly asked their students to evaluate great works of literature based purely on reading the work itself.  This resulted in the students using (randomly) selected quotes from the text (that they probably didn’t read) to defend (asinine) opinions.  This approach stemmed from the belief that the meaning of a text is contained within the text itself, which makes a certain amount of sense.  Meaning derived from not-the-text can hardly be said to have come from the text.  If the book (or game, movie, bottle cap art, etc) is trying to say something, then it presumably is saying it within the confines of the work.  The problem with this approach is that it ignores the context of the statement.  Artists don’t create in a vacuum.  Instead, they are informed, consciously and subconsciously, by the world around them.  One artist may paint a battlefield to show their patriotism towards their country while another artist paints the same picture to show the horrors of war.  By just looking at the painting, the viewer might never know.

Of course, all of this matters only if you approach meaning through the eyes of authorial intent.  According to this school of thought, the author of a work defines its meaning and all analysis should focus on figuring out what they were trying to say.  Again, the logic behind this is simple.  The author of a work presumably crafted it the way they wanted it.  If the author wanted to impart a message, than their art would reflect that.  So, any message contained within a work is a reflection of the author’s views on a particular topic.  Once again, the approach has flaws.  Authorial intent quickly becomes authorial tyranny.  First, by mandating that critics spend their time trying to divine whatever they think the author might be saying.  Sometimes the author is kind enough to explain their ideas, but they often what the player to figure them out.  The second, and possibly most troubling issue, is that by making the artist the sole source of meaning, we ignore the consumer and what conclusions they come to.  The consumer does not just passively receive the information headed their way.  They process a work through their own experiences, world view, and mental state and that forms the basis of what they get from the work.  Their views can, and often do, have more impact than the authors.  Consider Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  Sinclair hoped to use The Jungle as a way to spotlight the oppression of workers in industrialized America.  His audience viewed the book differently and decided that the terrible food hygiene was the key message.  Instead of a Commission for Worker’s Rights, the US government created the precursor of the Food and Drug Administration to stop unsanitary food preparation.

If the author and the consumer don’t define meaning, then who does?  The answer, frustratingly, is no one.  Meaning with a capital M doesn’t exist as a static concept with stable, defined answers.  It is an intensely personal idea that each person creates for themselves.  With that in mind, meanings often do overlap and the most persuasive conceptions of meaning tend to be the ones that draw from the text and the artist’s thinking.  While any work can mean anything to anyone, the most common meanings are those which draw upon the elements of the work to create an argument that reflects those elements.  Incorporating both the consumer’s view of a work and the artist’s intentions tends to create the most agreed upon, though not the definitive, meaning of a work

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