Reading this article from Game Studies forced me to think about rules, and the game that I have played recently that seemed most obsessed with rules from a narrative standpoint is The Detail. I won’t go into all the caveats I already discussed about the game sort of sucks (just recall that it wasn’t finished because the developers lost funding), but I hope that one piece of the narrative that definitely would have changed was the ending, which was rushed beyond belief.
Perhaps the biggest impact that The Wire as a series had on me was its willingness to show how everyone is compromised – the police and city government and those who are supposed to be righteous as well as those who are taking advantage of the demand around them in order to improve their own socio-economic standing. The feeling of injustice that happens at the end of the first season when one Barksdale is given a reduced sentence and the police and city council get their pictures in the paper with news of a huge drug bust that we as viewers know was compromised and much less than it could have been felt devastating, as did the union boss’s death at the end of the second season. There is no true justice is an important part of the message of the best of these types of detective fictions.
The Crime Board – know your rules
Rules happen within games, too, and part of the dismay I felt about watching The Detail run off the rails happened when the detectives stumble upon a torture scene. That attempt to make the criminals look less than human was too obvious, too clearly set within a rule set that says that bad guys must do really bad things. This sort of easy moralizing was something that The Wire intentionally avoided.
In reading for the essay I’m writing on Kentucky Route Zero I have been trying to pick up everything I can from literary the genres that the developers Cardboard Computer pull from. That includes Child of God, by Cormac McCarthy, although I cannot imagine two more dissimilar narratives. Thoughts:
- The most straightforward approach to thinking of this novel is to consider it a meditation on living life without love of any sort. That approach works to explain Lester Ballard.
- It skips, however, the reasons why Lester is like this. We get a bit of his backstory, but why he is driven out of town is a story that we don’t get.
- That gap, I think, allows us as readers to fill in our own backstory, and thereby read Lester as we want to read him. Depraved, evil, barely human, either made that way from the womb or gradually transformed into such because of those who raised him – either way, he’s a cipher, someone we can paint our own worldly perspective on.
- The landscape also serves as a sort of cipher. It’s set in Tennessee, and while I think of east Tennessee in particular as beautiful, Smoky Mountain-dominated set of valleys and rivers and ledges and hardwood trees, a reader can clearly view it instead as a harsh landscape that takes a toll on its inhabitants. Again, the approach is yours.
- Thinking of Lester as being on a journey seems ridiculously hippieish (and it is). The journey is one of depravity and anti-socialness to an extreme, showing the gradual breakdown of someone who simply cannot play well with others.
- So, then, why does McCarthy write this shit? George Saunders in an interview said that he writes in order to show that the world is a cruel place and that he finds worth in understanding how people understand and deal with that cruelty, but I never get the sense that McCarthy gives a shit about that.
- Is it redemption? Uh, no. No one in this novel, or hell, nearly any novel of his besides maybe The Road gets any sort of redemption. Lester dies as miserably as he lived, and we as readers don’t even get the benefit of learning some sort of moral lesson – treat people right or they become monsters, or something like that.
- Is it a sociological/ethnographic study? If so, I’m not sure what we can learn, except that some people can only relate to dead people, after they have fucked them. I’m hoping that’s a small demographic.
- And yet the novel made me laugh a couple of times, and I had trouble putting it down. I’m not sure what that says about me…
And of course James Franco made it into a movie…
Gaming Globally (edited by Nina B. Huntemann and Ben Aslinger) was recommended to me by a friend after I expressed interest in better understanding the increase in game developers in Latin America and Africa, and it was well worth the read. It will serve, I am guessing as a baseline for the kind of research and development that lots of game developers are interested in promulgating.
- The editors make clear that they do not assume that all readers believe that gaming is global – they argue that games are transnational as well as multi-platform, media, etc. Making the argument to me feels necessary, not just because game discussion is almost entirely north- and west-based, but also because making the argument in this fashion helps match the urgency that developers in countries outside of the U.S., Europe, and Japan feel.
- They note that Japanization is as powerful as Americanization in the global game market. I was reminded of this phenomenon this morning when a former student liked something I tweeted, and upon looking at his timeline I discovered that since graduation he has discovered anime.
- The format of this book is a bit different, as they offer the standard academic essays but add what they call snapshots, three-four page looks at very specific times or places based on themes.
- The amount of research in this is staggering. Once again I am reminded of my inability to speak another language, let alone read it an academic level.
- Among the many chapters one that struck me was one that talked about game development and programming under the old Iron Curtain. My fascination with 80s anti-fascist and anti-Soviet eastern Europeans and Latin Americans continues…
I’m reading Epsen Aarseth’s Cybertext, and it reminds me fiercely of both KRZ and Deadly Synchronicity. Aarseth finds a place to locate these games within literature, but he essentially invents a term to do so – ergodic literature, or literature that requires more than just turning a page to interact with.
His rejection of semiotics made me think of the way that KRZ in particular plays with signifiers. I have slowly over the years come to understand what semiotic analysis buys us as we think about what the flood of texts that we are immersed in every day mean to us in our daily lives.
The greatest aesthetic problem for the adventure story-game seems to be believable characters.
- So what does KRZ do? It invokes southern gothic and magical realism in order to jump right over the need for ‘believable characters’…
- These genres rely on their characters’ unbelievability, to a degree…
- The other literary genre that they invoke is theater…and the main stars are cyborgs…
- methinks they’re fucking with Aarseth’s argument just a bit…
- They might also be messing with the distinction that Aarseth makes between representation and simulation. Aarseth argues extensively that as a player he ignores the righteous hotness of Lara Croft, instead finding pleasure in the game (and gameplay) itself. He then argues about the importance of simulation, emphasizing the power of the testing loop in getting the game experience closer and closer to the real thing.
- KRZ has all kinds of moments in which the impossibility of this loop ever approaching reality gets made clear. I will try to identify them all as I keep working on this project, but at the very beginning of the game the first gamers that we run into (in the basement of the gas station) disappear as soon as we find their missing die. Finding the one piece of game equipment that is preventing them from playing the game, and then having the players disappear as well, makes me think that perhaps the Cardboard Computer folks are not all that concerned about the narratology-ludology debate…
- outside phone call and items
- southern gothic and magical realism – teasing out the connections…
- homage to pixels – the logo…
Skolnick’s Videogame Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques was a fun, useful read. Thoughts:
- Skolnick is an industry pro, and in a lot of ways this book is a call for empathetic *and* rational project management in game development. The book has individual chapters on how to build teams by including everyone’s input. He also, though, is aware of industry realities, and so talked about how game writers and other narrative experts are brought in late or let go early…
- I don’t know if Skolnick invented this term, but he talks about ludonarrative harmony and dissonance. He might be a bit too eager to claim that this is possible, or that the ludology-narratology wars are over, but his attempts to see the virtues of both (and to argue that they should be in harmony) are useful.
- Although it’s not a mainstream game, Skolnick would probably love the intro to KRZ – it tells the player a ton of information very quickly, and even uses a game-within-a-game to help set the environment…
- plus, we get “weird things happen underground” as a theme…
- his checklists are useful, and would help in a game writing class – 133
- I also liked this distinction, between player motives and player character motives
- he identifies two scenes that are examples of pitfalls and well-done contrasts…
- No Russia scene in COD: MW2, in which an undercover player is asked to kill innocents at an airport..the assumption that players will simply think of these as pixels is an interesting one, since it seems to be contrary to what games do…
- The second is from Portal, and it involves the player wanting to not kill the companion cube,
- He gave me another way to think about my game – it upfronts the environmental sounds – voiceovers (VOs for the cool kids), barks (systematically-generated audio), and so on – 183
- And, as Bob noted, he routinely emphasizes emotional involvement, even showing a chart that maps what writers want players to feel…183
I came upon Soil by James Kornegay as I work on an analysis of Kentucky Route Zero, as it connected with the genre of the southern Gothic. There are connections, although Kornegay’s novel is a particularly modern take.
- The book is called Soil, and it lives up to that name. Kornegay immerses one of his point of view characters, Jay Mize, in that very substance, and even has him finish off a man who he shot accidentally in a tussle for a gun by suffocating the guy with earth. Mize is obsessed with soil – he begins his career working for conservation agencies, and he essentially loses his family in part because he wants to start his own large-scale composting project.
- He takes mud baths (along with his son, at one point), and cooks down the body of a missing person until it becomes part of his compost.
- Soil works as a pretty clear metaphor in a region (the Mississippi delta) known for antediluvian floods.
- Soil also functions, though, as a tie to the past. Mize has a family history of the violence associated with racism, so casual as to be almost accidental, and while none of that shows up in the book it is clear that his family history weighs on him heavily. He goes off the edge partially because his father commits suicide, leading him to paranoid conspiracy theories and a disconnect with the ways of the modern world.
- Family history in this novel mostly comes through fathers – Mize’s case, of course, but also Danny Shoals, the loser detective who sleeps with as many women as he can and who takes an unhealthy interest in Mize’s wife, from whom Mize has separated in his increasing alienation. Shoals’s father was a sheriff and died a hero, and Shoals also cannot live up to that legacy.
- Sandy, Jay’s wife, is also motivated by the fear of losing her father, who is in the hospital at the end of the novel. Their relationship is much healthier, however, and her point of view ends with her moving back into her father’s house with their six-year-old son, who the narrator now calls Sandy’s “little man.” Fathers and sons equal trouble, essentially, as even though Jay has a last few good days with Jacob (the son), we are told in the last section that Jay has decided his son must not follow his own (and presumably his father’s) path.
- Jay doesn’t commit suicide, but his actions are so reckless that they seem designed to get him killed.
- The novel ends with Jay dying of exposure and blood loss after being shot by Shoals. He has been swept downstream, as has so much promising Mississippi dirt, and ends up being deposited as more organic material for a relentless natural process.
- Even in Shoals Kornegay doesn’t rely too much on southern stereotypes. Instead, the novel uses the landscape in ways that I guess the old southern gothics (in particular I am thinking of Faulkner’s “The Bear”) do to portray a sense of inevitability and doom. The emphasis on a particular type of masculinity might also seem especially southern, I guess.
- There is a lot going on here, of course, although I am struggling to move past the obvious. One teasingly close thread that keeps popping into my mind is Jay’s absolute certainty that he is being monitored constantly. Complete – and very loose – coincidences make him crazy and shake him loose from any types of ordinary family connections, and our contact with other, better-connected folks – his neighbors, friends from in town, even a kid who Sandy is convinced will be trouble – makes clear just how monstrous Jay has become.
- His first truly anti-social act – taking responsibility for a body found on his property because he is certain that the police will blame the man’s death on Jay – is ridiculous in its intent, intensity, and the manic devotion he takes to completing the task. At no point does he stop to think that the man has a family that will want to know where he is, a fairly normal connection most of us would make.
- Mize is convinced that the world will end, and that he will survive, and I am guessing that that belief also dominates Mize’s thoughts because he cannot see a way to escape the legacy of his father in this world. Kornegay gives us a different solution by having Jacob being raised by his mother and his maternal grandfather, someone who is a professor and lover of art and far more gentle and I guess empathetic, so the world views are contrasted clearly.
Part of the attraction from my perspective to Kentucky Route Zero is the sly nods it makes to technological history, especially computer technology of the late seventies up until the ascension of the PC. A couple of quick thoughts on how this all works:
- While these are not necessarily direct comparisons, I see comparisons between the set up of KRZ and the token ring networks of the 70s and 80s. Token ring briefly looked like the next big thing, at least until ethernet technology became perfected and standardized in 1983, and the way that token ring works can be mapped onto the narrative (and hell ludology) of this game I think.
- Token ring is a system of based analog signals. Analog signals, unlike digital, can fade, get noise attached to them (shielded wire can help, but only so far), and thus have been replaced by digital, despite holdouts like Steve Albini. In KRZ, the fading of the orange letters of the cathode ray tube terminal, the in-and-out of signals, and the constant sort of low buzz of technological activity screams an analog universe.
- Token ring was an attempt to create a system that enabled a mainframe to communicate with more than one dumb terminal per port. Before systems like token ring were invented, the mainframe communicated with each terminal via one direct line, a direct line that required a port in the mainframe. Token ring was designed to allow multiple terminals to be on one port. KRZ celebrates that sort of brilliant technical innovation, *especially* when those brilliant technical innovations were quickly passed by other brilliant technical innovations.
- The connections to communication and how we relate to each other are clear, I think, and I’ll puzzle them out as I proceed…
- Token ring was designed to avoid collisions as packets got passed. KRZ can and does have a lot to say about this – the characters who don’t really collide with each other, for instance. The system also sort worked like a shipping network that sent small ships into each port to investigate whether or not the port (terminal) needed data in the packet that was currently waiting. KRZ is full of these packets of data, in delivery trucks and on actual ferry boats, and they are constantly in motion – in fact, the delivery truck has to roll to a stop, obeying the laws of physics (inertia).
As you can imagine, I can do this all day…at this point, I am not sure how useful this connection will be. A potential lack of usefulness does not make the connection not worth observing and documenting.