Saturday, April 30, 2016

[BoRT: April] ill digestions


The world eats bodies,
And everything eaten in the world dies.
Truth eats life,
But no one fed on truth will find death.
Jesus came and he carried food,
Giving life to whoever wanted it
So they might not die.

-Barnstone & Meyer, The Gnostic Bible, Shambhala Publications Inc. Boston. 2003. 284

So if we are to make an examination of food in games during this month’s Blog of the Round Table then I feel a certain emphasis must be placed on games that layer together the complexities of consuming and how the metrics of meals can be tangled and re-tangled within a single ludic system. Call it calories or energy, hyper potions or Lon Lon Milk; game design has the potential to call upon the long tradition of using food as a symbol that weaves together concepts of existence, morality, fertility, and divinity in stories of grand feasts or humble last suppers. The trading card game, Magic: The Gathering, characterizes the potential nuances of games as multi-layered acts of feeding. Like the gnostic passage above, the resources with the game both synergize and antagonize each other until we realize that quite everything is edible.

The Menu

Magic is known for releasing new cards every few months in sets known as ‘blocks’ in which the designers at Wizards of the Coast put emphasis on particular aspects of the core, “vanilla,” gameplay. At its most basic, a game of Magic consists of a deck of hand-selected cards, known as a ‘library,’ as well as a discard pile for cast spells and dead creatures known as the ‘graveyard.’ Players play land cards that can then be used to pay the casting costs of spells and creatures. They deal damage back and forth until one can reduce the other’s life total from twenty to zero. The alternative win condition states that a player loses if they can no longer draw a card at the beginning of their deck (i.e. their deck has been completely discarded into their graveyard). These two long-standing win conditions create a simple binary between the player’s physical fitness (life total) and mental fitness (a full library).

The immediate link between these two measurements of health is the overtly demonic mechanic of sacrificing life to draw additional cards or perform other actions that might ultimately pay-off by killing the opponent faster than you can destroy yourself. In fact, much of the morality built into Magic’s five-sided “color wheel” relates to the ways that each color of spell consumes or renews life total and card availability. Black spells traditionally exhibit a certain greed and aesthetic of the disposable while white and green value protection and longevity. Red and Blue provide a spectrum respectively between chaos and control of these same resources.

An example of a pre-exile card that transports cards out of the graveyard. The irony of a zombie-cleric making the sacred profane might point to how we interpret these game spaces.

Later in the 2010 rule update, Magic added an additional play area known as ‘the exile zone’ to solidify a space which several cards had already begun to experiment with the card text: ‘remove from the game.’ The concept of exile was to push for a space that was even harder to access than the graveyard. Whereas some spells could be cast out of the graveyard and other spells specialized in reviving your beloved creatures, the exile zone remains almost all-but-impenetrable. Between this trinity of zones, the five colors fight for unattainable supremacy in a never ending cycle.

Savory Combinations

One potential combination of the ingest-process combo shared between to Eldrazi

The two most recent blocks devilishly push and pull between the meanings and implications of these three spaces. Starting with the Eldrazi monsters of the Battle for Zendikar block, Magic developed a mechanic known as ‘Ingest’ that would allow Eldrazi to “eat” through a player’s library and exile the lost cards. In addition, other Eldrazi have the ability to ‘Process’ exiled cards and return them back to the graveyard as payment for special creature abilities. There’s a certain scientific (perhaps hydroelectric) feel to an ex nihilo mechanic which diverts a card’s potential energy through the exile zone before returning it to play and harnessing it against an opponent. Playing an Eldrazi deck forces a opponent to pay attention not just to what’s on the board and what’s in their hand but also how much of their deck has been removed from game. Thus while earlier cards such as Withered Wretch wished to simplify the game by exiling a card, the Eldrazi feed the exile space in order to confuse what is meta- or “beyond” the game and what is still very much a part of the game-as-metagame.

In response to the corporeal experience of fighting Eldrazi, the following block: Shadows Over Innistrad, completely reverses the nihilism and builds on the Gothic theme that nothing ever dies. Spirits, vampires, and nightmarish horrors linger in this set and often return to play or revive themselves. The two-faced card “Startled Awake” and “Persistent Nightmare,” visible below, plays with the notion of mental trauma as the card’s abilities allow it to physically cycle from hand to graveyard to play and back again to feed on the other player’s deck.

Depletion of sleep and card advantage

Mental Meals

Despite the threat of reducing one’s library to zero present in cards such as “Startled Awake,” Shadows Over Innistrad pays equal attention to the player’s own graveyard. The mechanics known as ‘Madness’ and ‘Delirium’ twist the concept of a full library as mental stability while also transmuting the notion of a graveyard into a strange receptacle of both mental and physical corpses. Cards with ‘Madness’ state: “If you discard this card, discard it into exile, When you do, you may cast it for its madness cost or put it into your graveyard.” The parallels to ‘Ingest’ ought to be clear but this time, instead of an opponent abusing the library to feed their ravenous creatures, the player willingly sends their own cards into exile only to reconstitute them back into play. The mechanic’s name draws upon the 19th century conception of madness (see the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Nikolai Gogol) as a professed assertion of a different reality. The traditional heuristics of Magic suggest that discarding a card from your hand hurts your potential to play that card later on in the game. ‘Madness’ rewrites that assumption and allows you to engage in your own self-destruction and profit in return. 

A card such as “Alms of Vein” perfectly elides the theme of vampiric loss and renewal that repeats throughout the cards. While vampires are traditionally thought to be predatory, the card’s image suggest the first-person viewpoint of a character who charitably gives to the vampire repeatedly in order to receive some sort of reward. The image further confuses the relationship between player and opponent: is the player mad to allow a vampire to take their own blood in payment for blood magic, or does the spell suggest that the player is the vampire leeching the life away from the opponent? ‘Madness’ pressures the player to use every card, to actively remove your hand while simultaneously stretching the potential energy of that movement.

Card art as complex representation of food and loss

After all this self-sacrifice settles the set's second key graveyard mechanic begins to take hold. Cards with ‘Delirium’ have a trigger that activates further abilities if the player has four or more card types in your graveyard. The mechanic puts pressure on getting not just sorceries and instants (spells that naturally resolve and go to your graveyard) but also creatures, lands, enchantments, and artifacts buried into the dirt. An initial interpretation of ‘Delirium’ suggests that the mechanic invokes some sort of hallucination or confusion within the mind. While other decks (think of someone playing against the Eldrazi’s ‘Ingest’) might consider spells sent to the graveyard as lost potential, a deck specializing in ‘Delirium’ prefers to actively diversify their portfolio of lost cards. The graveyard is no longer the antithesis of the library but a parallel library which grants spells further incantatory strength.

A Gnawing Conclusion

All these reversals further madden the sense of victory since these mechanics make it all the more difficult to interpret whose consuming whom. Perhaps the mascot of Shadows Over Innistrad is not the heroic angels or chaotic demons that dominate the promotional material but the humble “Sanitarium Skeleton;" a creature able to return from your graveyard to your hand at anytime. The flavor text of the card reads: “His mind was lost long before his flesh.” Presumably the bony prisoner of this unknown asylum no longer has brain nor brawn and yet his ability prevents him from ever being completely gone. The world of Innistrad revolves around eating, regurgitating, and re-eating his undead corpse. I hesitate at the neologism on my screen; “re-eat,” sounds fundamentally wrong and yet perfectly (post?-)post-modern. Players are not just recycling this card because the term suggests that he is valuable as reclaimable resource. Wrapped up in the binds of a strait-jacket, the skeleton takes on the role of a trussed up chicken meant to be served again and again as a discard placeholder for other cards demanding sacrifice. The skeleton might never even be played, it only promises the potential of play. Meat and nitrates meant to be-looked-at before instantly spoiling.

The humble mascot

These rapid-fire observations of contemporary Magic sets represent resistance to the notion that the game design revolves around 1:1 ratios of health potions to health bars and mana potions to mana bars. Food is not just for healing. It can be equally destructive, consuming, and exhausting. It might never even be eaten! The role of food elicits questions such as who produces the food, who receives the food, and who fails to eat? The need for food, for resources remains fundamentally tied to our own mortality in much the same way that absence of any food signals and promises death. As we wait to see what new graveyard and feeding mechanics emerge in Shadow Over Innistrad’s sister set, Eldritch Moon, it is not too early to say that the designers of Magic have joined the leagues of mystics and anthropologists who force us to question just what are we eating to survive?

This piece was inspired by Critical Distance's monthly prompt, "Blogs of the Round Table."

Sunday, March 27, 2016

[BoRT: March] Have You Ever Looked at Master Chief's Feet?

Agile and limber, dancing on three-inch wall protrusions, I am so much more than a thousand-pound space marine. I hop along the rooftops, tagging jackal snipers that strut from the oblivion of half-hidden spawn points, while enemy fireteams stand inactive in the shadowed alleys of Old Mombasa. When my brother and I received Halo 2 on Christmas Day, 2004, it was both our first Xbox game and first first-person-shooter. Without the distraction of Xbox Live we replayed the campaign levels with the repetitive scrutiny of archaeologists scratching in the same dig site day after day.

Halo 2’s story is noticeably the most fragmented of the series. The came jumps back and forth between the franchise protagonist, Master Chief, and a dishonored general turned special operative, The Arbiter until the two meet and unite against the threat of galactic annihilation. “Space Opera” does not even begin the capture the grandness (read: blandness) of the game's twists and turns and sudden transitions from planet to planet to space station; jungle lake to snowy tundra. In many ways, I over-consumed the narrative. What should have been a brief experience dwarfed by weekends lost to the addiction of competitive multiplayer became an optimized ritual unto itself. My brother and I learned where extra vehicles were hidden, which alcoves held additional sniper and rocket ammunition, and which side routes provided a tactical advantage. These experiences lead me to reject the traditional claim that Master Chief's blank face-plate allows the audience to project themselves into the ultimate super solider. As we explored the architecture of each level we became more quartermaster than commando and more concerned with the minutia of supplies than the titillation of combat.
A comparison to Doug Liman's military scifi thriller, Edge of Tomorrow (2014), might perhaps help us understand the irony of player choreography within the framework of the “action genre.” Whereas the pleasure of most action movies is the way the characters spontaneously respond to challenge after challenge with fists, swords, or guns, Edge of Tomorrow makes the audience aware of repetition and staging within action films. Tom Cruise's character can only transform from journalist to soldier through countless respawns that teach him where each danger lies waiting on the battlefield. Much of the film's visual pleasure emerges from the learned perfection of a well-timed dodge or double-kill. The film bridges the gap between games and cinema and asks us to consider how we play and how we replay.
My experience with Halo 2 stretches beyond Edge of Tomorrow's deconstruction of the action movie and leads me to ask: How does repetition both slow down or enhance a game experience? In a level called “Regret,” situated roughly in the middle of the campaign, there is a moment when a gondola arrives to carry the Master Chief over a lake. After killing numerous enemies who intended to storm out of the gondola and attack the Chief, I would wait for a Pelican (the game's dropship) to fly by and release several resupply canisters filled with power weapons. Because the game limits you to carrying only two weapons at any time, the superficial implication is that the player should pick their favorite means of destruction, then get on the gondola and forge ahead. Instead, I made a habit of ferrying each weapon onto the gondola, trading it with an alien weapon dropped among the corpses I just killed, then going back to the resupply canisters to exchange the inferior plasma firearm for another power weapon. The game takes a tranquil pause until I've littered the gondola deck with shotguns and rocket launchers and launch onward across the lake.
I think this sequence represents a tension in the game's design because my little maneuver worked to both arrest the level's forward momentum while simultaneously empowering me with more tools of destruction to fight more aliens on the other end of the gondola ride. I had to discover that this little piece of choreography will help me later on in the level. It represents on of so many little dances that both optimized my play and distanced me from intended machismo.
      If first person shooters are meant to embody military perspectives and fantasies of warfare, who am I when I stop shooting? There is something profoundly un-Master Chief about snooping around for extra sniper ammo, yet, in order to play on Legendary mode, the game's highest difficulty, the aforementioned “Legend” needs to start doing less running and gunning and more walking and collecting in order to survive.

      A few weeks before the Xbox appeared under our Christmas tree I remember when my brother's friend brought over his own Xbox and a copy of Halo 2 during a sleep over. During this brief preview I recall that as the friend showcased the game's graphics and gore he would occasionally look down with the joysticks and look at the Master Chief's feet. Not every FPS shows the player's feet he insisted; for emphasis, he occasionally stuck his own shins with a plasma grenade and ran around before blowing up and respawning. The feet mattered and the paths they take matter, treading and retreading the battlefield. 

This piece was inspired by Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table March discussion on Choreography in games. For more video game writing consider reading Critical Distance or checking out these other pieces on Choreography: