Saturday, January 24, 2015

Analysis: Ace Combat

When you talk about games, you quickly find that a lot of people take games personally. Like, everyone has a game or a movie that they love so much that any criticism of the work feels like criticism of themselves. Everyone has a game or a movie or a band or a tv show that they feel attached to, like it was made for them alone, no matter how many other millions of people watch it or play it or listen to it.

Ace Combat was mine. Its setting and narrative stuck out to me, and because it was relatively low-key in the gaming world, I felt a sense of ownership towards it, like I was one of the few people who was really in on it. Back before the massive network of wikis, there was a site called Electrosphere that accumulated data about Ace Combat to form a rudimentary encyclopedia. And I contributed to it. I went through text dumps and sound files to pick out obscure details about setting history and squadron names and all sorts of shit. I cared. I gave a shit about that setting and that world and that story.

I'm telling you this to give context to my dismantling of the series. I've been accused of being heartless or petty or unfair or insensitive when discussing games that other people like, but here's the facts. This is a game I loved, that I identified strongly with, and that I personally invested in. And I'm going to tear it apart, because at times we must purge things from this world because they should not exist. Even if it means losing something that you love.

Ace Combat takes place in the world of "Strangereal", a world which is essentially "modern earth" with different geography. Which is to say, it is a world that has "modern technology", but simply isn't "our world". It's a type of "alternate world" that I rarely see - a world that is (for the most part) totally realistic, but simply isn't Earth. Although there is one other relatively prominent example - the setting of Papers, Please, which is an example of the concept being applied well.

There are several reasons Ace Combat was made this way. Firstly, the designers wanted to be able to have war narratives without involving real-life politics. While there are stand-ins for real-life nations (the most obvious being the "Cold War" between "Osea" and "Yuktobania"), the fictional setting allows for a level of detachment so each side's actions can be viewed more objectively. There are "real politics" involved, but only on the level of basic philosophies (left-wing vs right-wing, hawk vs dove, etc). As a result, we end up with a narrative that has the basic beats of a real story, but doesn't connect as directly into our existing prejudices and assumptions.

The second reason for the non-real world is that it was designed to facilitate large conventional wars that wouldn't make sense in real life. Strangereal is a world without nuclear deterrence and without modern ideas of a "just war". As a result, wars fought purely for territory and dominance extend even into the 21st century. This is, of course, necessary to the gameplay - Ace Combat is a game about massive battles between fighter jets, not guerilla warfare in proxy states. What's curious about it is that while the setting generally shows the value of nuclear deterrence, there's also a pretty strong anti-nuclear message in the games themselves. Nuclear weapons are treated as being uniquely horrific in a setting where massively destructive wars are commonplace, even though we don't have those wars in real life anymore because of nukes.

The setting's biggest flaw, in my opinion, is its over-reliance on Anglo-American themes. If you're going to build a fake world, it seems like you should get more exotic with your influences. What's the point of building a whole fake world if you're just going to have people named BOB JOHNSON in every country? Oh, sure, you've got a Fake Germany and a Fake Russia and another Fake Russia, but that only takes you so far. It's established that there's black people and asian people in the setting, but there's no sign of a country where they're the majority. Get creative with it, for God's sake.

The Ace Combat games have the same basic gameplay ("fly around, shoot planes"), but different framing devices for the stories they tell. Ultimately each game tells the story of a single badass pilot who won all the battles and did all the important things, but the way the world around that story is presented changes from game to game.

Ace Combat 1 & 2 are pretty direct arcade-style games. Their stories were limited to briefings detailing why you were in a particular area blowing things up. The most notable thing about these games is that the war depicted in them is relatively pointless; it's a wholly political affair, with no real sense of a good or evil side. The remake of Ace Combat 2 fleshed this out even more; the rebellion exists because a faction in a government feels that their country is too reliant on another country. Which is to say, it's a boring C-SPAN level plot, which is itself pretty interesting when most of the other games try to provide some moral justification for the player's actions. This isn't about defending one's homeland, you're just a pilot fighting for a pro-government faction against rebels. 

Ace Combat 3 was, weirdly enough, a cyberpunk game with an anime style detailing a war between mega-corporations. The big innovation in AC3 was that the "silent protagonist" turned out to be an advanced AI running a simulation about the potential effect of a skilled fighter pilot. It also introduced a "non-protagonist" pilot who had the level of skill traditionally associated with player characters (i.e. "he won wars by himself"). While I don't think of AC3 as being particularly good, it did toy around with the "ace pilot" formula pretty well.

Ace Combat 04 was the first "conventional" Ace Combat game, detailing a war between the far-right country of Erusea and the neighboring "Independent State Allied Forces". Like Ace Combat 1 & 2, there were briefings and operations, but the game's cutscenes were told from the perspective of a young boy caught up in the war. The player character is important to "the war", but is only tangential to the boy's story. There was a sense of things going on outside the player's immediate purview - an attempt to tell a story, to make the setting larger than just "the ace" and "the pilots he's killed".

Ace Combat 5 was probably the most direct storyline. You're playing a silent protagonist with multiple talkative squadmates. Things happen in a linear fashion. A character dies in a cutscene. So on and so forth. AC5's most prominent idea is that "war is bad", and while its setup is very distinctly "Cold War", its themes are actually pretty heavily Japanese. Osea, the USA stand-in, has a self-defense force instead of an army, and its pilots espouse anti-war ideologies even as they shoot down enemy planes. Ultimately the war turns out to have been orchestrated against the wills of both countries, and the whole situation is resolved.

Ace Combat Zero told its story in the form of a documentary. The player took the role of a mercenary pilot defending the country of Ustio from its neighbor, Belka. The game introduced a "morality system" of sorts. Certain targets, such as civilian buildings and damaged planes, could be destroyed for extra money. Doing so would make you a "mercenary", while abstaining would make you a "knight". In-game comments about your character would differ depending on your playstyle. The game's cutscenes were done as interviews with pilots that you shot down, who would comment on their own experiences as well as your flying style. Like AC04, you got the sense that there was a "real war" going on, even if the player wasn't really part of it. People responded to death and loss like people do, and the documentary style created an air of legitimacy about the whole thing. It felt like a story that was being taken seriously.

Ace Combat 6 is the worst. Not just the worst Ace Combat, the worst, period. It's a story about "fake America" fighting "fake Russia" and it basically plays like a jingoistic shooter. There is zero doubt that the "Emmerians" are the good guys and the "Estovakians" are the bad guys (or, best case scenario, misguided tools of a corrupt leadership). However, the cutscenes of the game did focus on civilians trying to escape the war, and a main character loses his family while he's off fighting, so that's...something, at least. In every other regard AC6 is unacceptable, F-, see me after class.

Ace Combat X took place in the setting's equivalent of South America, which was a nice change. The story was told from the point of view of a foreign journalist writing an article about the war as it developed. While the story itself was pretty unsubtle (the bad guy turns out to have been corrupt!!), the presentation was pretty okay, and the tone made it feel like part of a larger world  - not the most important conflict in the setting's history, but a relatively normal part of it.

The weird thing about Ace Combat is that it actually doesn't really have LND - at least not in the traditional way. Your skill is 100% acknowledged as being totally fucking canon, and every other character treats you like you're the greatest pilot in the world despite your apparent lack of speaking ability. Compare this to something like Call of Duty, where the game never really acknowledges your superhuman combat ability and regenerative powers. You're just Sergeant Whatever, a dude who has killed hundreds of guys but still gets orders barked at him constantly like you're an idiot or something.

What Ace Combat does have, though, is shitty AI. AI that, at best, is reasonably competent and can take down the player if it has the advantage of numbers. At worst, though, the game's AI is barely capable of flying in a straight line. The player doesn't have to expend a lot of effort to shoot enemy planes down; they make no attempt to evade or use tactics or anything like that. They're supposed to be trained pilots, often veterans, and yet they exhibit the piloting skills of a rookie on their first day trying to figure out what all the levers do. And you're supposed to feel totally badass for gunning these losers down by the boatload. This is a phenomenon I have written about before.

I mean, this is hardly exclusive to Ace Combat, but AC is also trying to go out of its way to "build a setting". It has interviews with veteran pilots. It's trying to be a war story. It's trying to make a world. So it's one thing if the protagonist is overcoming enemies that feel like legitimately tough and competent characters, and it's totally different if the protagonist is overcoming enemies that feel like incompetent losers. It's denigrating to the story and to the experience as a whole.

I'll compare it to another game, Vector Thrust, which is an AC-inspired flight game. Compared to Ace Combat, Vector Thrust's combat is a lot more intense and dynamic. The AI is capable of more aggressive tactics, and the introduction of countermeasures (chaff/flares) makes the combat more tense on both offense and defense. As a result, a battle with only a few planes can feel serious and tense, and the player will actually lose most of the time if the odds are against them. Victory feels earned, and the setting feels cohesive. You feel like you're actually fighting veteran pilots, not hapless incompetents.

The strangest part about AC's system, though, is the fact that the games are so overtly anti-war in the first place. AC5 in particular talks about the horrors of war at every opportunity, and paints militant aggression as unequivocally evil or misguided. Yet the game has no qualms about making you the most awesome pilot ever and having everyone tell you how great you are. It's not even really meant to be subversive, like where you'd feel guilty for all the killing you're doing. You just kill people, and then eventually you kill the real bad people and it's like "oh okay, guess that's over".

For contrast, the anime series Area 88 was a big inspiration for Ace Combat. However, the mental toll of killing was a pretty huge theme in Area 88, even if the protagonist was an unnaturally skilled pilot. Fear and guilt are major concepts in the series, and the protagonist often justifies himself as "fighting to survive". Ace Combat says that war is bad, but doesn't really talk about any ideas of mental strain or guilt.

It's a series about fighter jets. Everyone wears flight suits. It works. I already covered this.

Although it's a pretty distinct reminder that "being realistic" is an easy default, despite games' insistence to the contrary. It's easy to design realistic-looking characters in realistic-looking uniforms. It's simple. It's effective. Games have to go out of their way to make ridiculous armor or costumes for their characters. They have to go out of their way to sexualize women. They have to go out of their way to make themselves ridiculous. From a design standpoint, realism is the path of least resistance. Games usually eschew realism because they feel like they have to.

Ace Combat has a neat idea for a setting but wastes itself on self-indulgent power fantasies. It's like having a documentary about World War 2 interrupted by Stolz Der Nation. You're just sitting there trying to learn about the effect that war has on the human psyche and BLAM, there's a shift into a cartoonish world where enemies charge at a lone warrior and he guns them all down. Am I watching a documentary or am I watching an action-adventure? I can't do both. You've got to decide.

In that sense, Ace Combat is the epitome of "gaming". It tells the player they're the best and the most important, but it also tells them they're mature and serious and adult. It coddles the player while assuring them that they're All Grown Up. And that's what gaming is.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Reading Rorschach, or, Responsibilities of Realism

I. In September of 1986, Alan Moore published the first issue of what would become his most well-known work: Watchmen.

His goal with Watchmen was to tear apart the superhero genre - to expose it to reality, and thus to subvert the long-standing tropes and traditions associated with the medium. Like Superman: Red Son, the comic works primarily by attaching superheroes to realistic political shifts - something that most superhero comics tend to ignore for the sake of a stable universe. The short, self-contained story allowed for plot twists and events that wouldn't be acceptable in a "long-running" universe.

One of the characters in Watchmen is Rorschach.

Rorschach is a Punisher-style vigilante; he does not imprison, he executes. Patterned after existing superheroes Mr. A and The Question, Rorschach was meant to be disgusting and unappealing - a murderer bound only by his own sense of justice. Moore made it clear, through many interviews, that he doesn't like Rorschach.

And yet many people do; in the same way that people read Judge Dredd and sympathize with its overtly fascist protagonist, or how people saw the Death Wish movies as power fantasy instead of a character study. I've written about this loosely in the past a few times, but now it's time to talk about why this happens.

The thing is...

...okay, let's zoom out. Here is how fiction works: a person constructs a scenario and then tells a story within that scenario. With me so far? Whether it's "real life" or a fantasy world, the way fiction works is that a scenario is built, and then the events of the story take place within it.

Okay, zooming out again: here's the thing about the way people see the world.

II. The vast majority of people believe that they see the world in a rational and logical manner. Very few people think to themselves "man, I'm just wrong and stupid about everything, but I guess I'll keep believing the things I believe anyways". There's always justifications. Right-wingers believe that change is a slippery slope leading to chaos and destruction; left-wingers believe that right-wingers are holding back civil rights in the name of "order". People have ideas about crime, about war, about politics, about morality, about ideology, about ethnicity, about identity, on and on and on. And generally, people believe that their views are correct, because if they weren't, why would they believe them?

I'll use an example from my own experience: I once encountered a teenager who was against war specifically because he believed that America fought using human waves tactics. He thought this because he saw Saving Private Ryan. He was "against war" because he believed that the specific Omaha Beach scenario was standard procedure. It wasn't an assumption he had any reason to question, because he'd already gotten his evidence and didn't feel the need to examine any other sources.

This is how knowledge works. If you don't know something, it's easy to admit it. I don't know a lot of things about physics and science and rocket engineering. I don't pretend to. It's easy to say that I objectively do not know those things. I am ignorant about those things, yes, but that's easier than being wrong about them.

On the other hand, if you think you know something, no matter whether it's right or wrong, you use that knowledge as a plug. Unless you want to constantly second-guess yourself, you can't really doubt every bit of information you've ever acquired. It's just not feasible. So you develop an idea, and even if there's evidence against it, you tend to cling to it.

Okay, now let's zoom back in a bit

III. When an author writes a scenario for their story, they're doing so using their own view of "reality". Most stories use reality as a base, and then differ from there. For example, even in fantasy worlds, you still have basic principles intact; fire burns, grass grows, sun shines. When principles are changed, it usually needs to be explained. For example, in a superhero story, we generally accept that superheroes exist, but their powers and abilities need explanation of some sort. Even though the rules are different from reality, we still expect the rules to make sense. This is what's referred to as internal consistency.

When a fiction writer creates a setting, either they are using their idea of reality as a backdrop, or it's assumed they are using their idea of reality as a backdrop. So, inevitably, the setting itself is judged by some level of realism, or assumed realism, even if the story itself is "fantasy". So what happens when a setting is populated by unreasoning, unambiguous thugs who can only be dealt with via violence? It's assumed that they, too, are part of the "realism".

Herein lies the curse of Watchmen, Judge Dredd, Death Wish, Max Payne 3, Spec Ops The Line et al. Stories that try to condemn their protagonists as violent lunatics, but end up putting them in a world that's more insane, violent and unrealistic than the characters themselves are.

Alan Moore didn't want people to sympathize with Rorschach; he wanted them to see him as a lunatic, not a hero. So why didn't they? Because they couldn't. Because it doesn't make sense for them to do that.

IV. The problem is that Moore put Rorschach into a "superhero world", not a "real world". Rorschach lives in a world of comic-book criminals; when he originally "breaks" and starts killing people, he does so because of a sadistic, child-murdering serial killer. He is constantly confronted by unapologetic murderers and rapists and thugs; they are not the product of his overzealous imagination, but the reality of the world that he lives in. It's easy for the average person to sympathize with a vigilante when their paranoid delusions are made manifest.

Take a brief skim of the news. The CIA torture report. The use of deadly force by police officers. The Charlie Hebdo killings, and the resulting anti-Muslim backlash that accompanied it. The world is full of examples of bad things being done in the name of defending good things. People argue that if the CIA wasn't allowed to torture and rape prisoners, then the terrorists would be able to do bad things. People argue that police are justified in shooting people because if they didn't the thugs would kill all the cops, and then they'd overrun our society. People believe it's okay to hurt Muslims because "they hurt us first".

Our society carries within it the idea that a "good person" who does "bad things" can still be a good person as long as the bad things were done to preserve good things. It's okay to fix elections in the name of democracy. It's okay to torture in the name of civil rights. It's okay to censor in the name of free speech. Everything about this is fine and okay because the ends justify the means.

In real life, this view can be challenged by pointing out the fact that the "necessity" of those actions is false. The CIA's torture program was as ineffective and useless as it was immoral. Police brutality is often applied in cases where it clearly isn't needed. Violence and prejudice against Muslims only fans the flames of extremist groups, while making life notably worse for the non-extremists. But there's no equivalent of that in Watchmen - no sign that Rorschach's actions are wrong or stupid or useless.

V. Rorschach was a failure as a character not because of who he was, but because of the world around him. Rorschach didn't make mistakes. He didn't fuck up. He didn't accidentally kill innocent people. The only time we see him "do something wrong" is when he drops a mentally ill man down an elevator shaft (because he was claiming to be a supervillain), and he's not punished for that. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre laugh about it years later, but Rorschach is never reprimanded for it; we don't even know if he was aware of what happened. As far as his world is concerned, Rorschach is 100% right, and the only reason you'd think otherwise is if you firmly believed that even serial killers and child rapists deserve redemption. But, of course, it's also made clear (in the average superhero comics) that villains don't reform. They just break out of Arkham and start the cycle all over again.

Rorschach is far from unique. Think of all the "cowboy cop" stories where civil liberties are treated as a form of red tape separating the villain from justice. Think of all the stories where there is no doubt that the villain is the bad guy, and everything the hero does in pursuit of the villain is justified. That's what Rorschach represents - not ideological extremism, but a skewed, warped idea of moral purity. Audiences like Rorschach because they think he's right, and there's nothing in the story itself to disprove them.

VI. Now we have to go somewhere with this, because this isn't just about fiction. It's about the way people see themselves, and see information. It's about why I don't take people seriously when they say they can tell fiction from reality.

There's a group of people who call themselves "Red Pillers". These individuals see the world in a certain way; specifically, they believe that women are vapid, emotional wrecks, and it's a man's job to manipulate and dominate women for their own sexual satisfaction. If you'd like a more in-depth overview of their beliefs and values, here is a post to help you get started.

The thing about TRP is that its members earnestly believe that they are right, not just ideologically, but fundamentally. They believe that their worldview is objectively correct. They don't see themselves as misogynists - they believe that they are enforcing a "natural order", even though they have to use force to do so. "We don't hate women", they'll say, "We just recognize that they need to be treated like our mental inferiors." "We aren't rapists", they'll say, "We just recognize that sometimes no doesn't really mean no. We also recognize that marriage is a contract, and women lose the right to say no when they enter it."

They think they're speaking realistically and rationally here. That's what they think reality is. When someone talk about being able to separate reality from fiction, you need to ask them what they think reality is. Because right now, reality is full of people who have "real morals" on par with a video game, and those people don't think they're crazy. They think they're the only sane ones. Which leads me to my final point.

VII. Two Quotes from CS Lewis that explain everything.

Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

You might have seen this quote floating around the internet. It's popular amongst the Manchild/Kidult Community (or MKC), because it's essentially an argument that validates their existence. It's a well-respected author telling people that it's okay to like childish things, and they shouldn't worry about what stuffy old grownups think of them because those grownups are the real children after all. I've lost count of how many times I've seen this argument made, usually to defend something objectionable.

But, as always, you must consider who is telling you that this is okay. After all, CS Lewis is just a man, like every other man out there. So let's take some of his own moral values into consideration.

I have met people who exaggerate the differences, because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, "Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?" But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did – if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did. There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.

CS Lewis believed, wholeheartedly, that morality was a fixed, unchanging, universal idea. He believed this because, to him, God's existence proves that there is an absolute, unchanging good and an absolute, unchanging evil. When this idea was challenged by society's changing values (in this case, "the fact that we don't burn witches anymore"), Lewis attributed this to the fact that we don't believe witches exist - and if we did believe this, it would be totally right and good to kill them. One wonders how Lewis would address slavery.

People overlook this aspect of his character when they cite that first quote, but you can't have one without the other. CS Lewis loved "childish things" because, ultimately, his real-life worldview was as childish as you can get. His view of morality, with "good" and "evil" so clearly defined, is straight out of a children's know, like the children's storybooks he continued to read as an adult. Like the children's storybooks that he encouraged people not to be ashamed of reading.

And the whole time, he thought he was being rational and objective and realistic. Because that is what people do, even when they're getting their moral values out of children's storybooks.

This concludes the examination.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Comparative Character Design: Kei Nagase

Yeah, I'm doing an actual article about character design. I know, right? Crazy. It'll be over quick though.

This is Kei Nagase from Ace Combat 5. As you might be able to tell from her design and also the fact that she's from a game called "Ace Combat", she's a fighter pilot. I bring her up in order to contrast her with a slightly different character: her original incarnation, from the game's concept art. The two characters are basically the same from a design standpoint. They have slender builds and short black hair. They're wearing flightsuits. For most intents and purposes, they are the same. So why bring them up?

Because when I hear people talking about character design, one thing I hear a lot is people defending big, sweeping design decisions. Those kinds of artists feel the need to make overwrought designs and then defend their exaggerations as being necessary to let the audience understand the character. They don't trust the audience to pick up on subtlety. So you end up with a lot of overblown characters wearing ridiculous outfits, and they get defended because people feel they have to be like that.

Look at those two designs again. They're the same, but they're not. They have different hair, different eyes, a different mood, a different feel. Their eyes, their facial expressions, their stance. All these little things. You could put those two characters side-by-side and play them off as totally different people, and I'd bet that audiences would accept it.

The "finished product" Kei Nagase is more taciturn, somber, and withdrawn. She doesn't really have a lot of emotion to her, and, as a result, "not being emotional" becomes a distinct part of her character. Obviously I've only given you a single CG model to work with, but rest assured, it's a theme that carries through - for example, here, here and here. While there's moments of intensity with her character, she's very rarely expressive. It's not that she's glassy-eyed and poorly rendered, but rather, you get the feeling that she's not totally there, like she's not really paying attention. She's a perpetual daydreamer. It's a thing.

The "original model" Kei Nagase is clearly more energetic, even though you don't have a line of dialogue to work with, or a single snippet of voice acting. Her hairstyle has more of a "punk" feel to it, even though the only real difference is a few wayward strands. Her eyes feel more intense, and convey assertiveness, in contrast to the "finished product's" detached nature. Even in the pose where she's reading her book, the original seems more involved in the action, more engaged, whereas the finished product seems lost in the work.

This isn't to say that one design is better than the other - far from it. The point of this exercise is to show that, even if you have a huge number of restrictions on your design, you can still make characters that are distinct and memorable and whose designs say something about them. Even if they're wearing a standard-issue flight suit or "realistic" armor or whatever else, you can find ways to make them people. And we're just talking about visual design; that's not even getting into the extra layers of writing and voicework and all that. So don't tell me you can't do it, because you can. Subtlety's not that bad. Realism helps. It's a thing. Pick up an anatomy book while you're at it.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Spring Cleaning

Hey everyone, I'm going to be cleaning the site up a bit for readability's sake. While the "main format" will be unaffected, the "articles sorted by theme" page is going to get an overhaul so you can actually find things. Also some of the "chaff" articles are going to get deleted.

Please use the aforementioned "sorted by theme" page to navigate around this webzone.


EDIT: The overhaul is complete.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Analysis: Wing Commander

First released in September of 1990, Chris Robert's Wing Commander series was both traditional and novel, combining a classic "space ace" concept with innovations in storytelling and worldbuilding. Drawing influence from the Pacific Theater of World War 2 as well as more contemporary works like Top Gun, this memorable and influential series certainly has a lot of concepts to explore.

Set in the distant future, Wing Commander takes place during a war between the Terran Confederation and the Kilrathi, a race of imperialistic, militant cat-people. The player takes the role of Christopher "Maverick" Blair; in the first game, he is fresh out of the academy, assigned to the carrier Tiger's Claw. The series follows Maverick's actions through the war and beyond. The earlier games generally follow a more militarized pattern, focusing on missions and patrols assigned by your commanding officer. In later games, as the war changes, your objectives are more based on pursuing individual goals, uncovering plots, and so on.

The Terran Confederation as depicted in most of the games is a relatively progressive society; pilots from all over the world are represented on the Tiger's Claw, and female pilots are common as well. While the statistics still skew towards white men (6 of 9 pilots in WC1 are white, and 7 of 9 are male), there's at least a clear attempt at inclusion (which makes sense for the setting). The uniforms worn by pilots are the same for men and women - a sensible WW2-inspired look for dress uniforms, and a relatively goofier-looking flight suit. Combat is taken seriously and combatants are treated with respect; the occasional exception, like Todd "Maniac" Marshall, is done intentionally, to contrast with the more serious standard of the rest of the cast. In terms of design, Wing Commander is basically what I want out of games: I want combat to be taken seriously, and "the way characters are designed" should be part of that seriousness.

Wing Commander is not a realistic simulation of spaceflight, but it is a relatively consistent one. Space combat happens in a certain way, at certain ranges, and everything about the game's setting is designed around that. As such, it is believable, but not realistic. Of course, it was designed this way for a reason, and that reason is "you can't have exciting dogfights in a realistic space game". Wing Commander was designed to be WW2 in space, just like Star Wars was, and that manifests itself in the fact that dogfighting in WC is heavily reliant on guns as opposed to long-range missile exchanges. The depths of space serve as a stand-in for the Pacific Ocean, with planets serving as its "islands".

By its nature, Wing Commander is a "space ace" narrative. You are playing a single pilot. You are going to get the most kills. You are going to be the biggest contributor to the war effort. You are going to make or break every mission. In that sense, Wing Commander is a classic PvE setup: your enemies are numerous and incompetent. The player's ability to "beat the odds" is artificially inflated because the odds in question are meaningless; it doesn't matter if they outnumber you ten to one if they can barely fly in a straight line. And of course that incompetence isn't limited to your enemies; your allies are also pretty bad at flying, so that you can feel awesome for flying a thousand times better than them. In the land of blind men, the one-eyed player-character is king. This sort of forced imbalance compromises the setting itself, and it also makes the player's victories feel weird if they stop and think about it. A smaller number of more-skilled pilots would have been just as challenging without making the player feel like they're picking on pilots far inferior to themselves.

However, there are certain levels of "consistency" that still exist in the series. For example, you're "legitimately" flying the same fighters as everyone else; you don't have advantages in terms of your statistics, number of missiles, or anything like that. You've got shields and armor on your ship, and it's the same level as everyone else who flies that ship. The only difference between you and everyone else is your flying ability. This is a marked difference to something like Call of Duty, where your superhuman ability to absorb bullets is (a) never mentioned and (b) completely vital to your ability to complete missions.

WC1 even included "failure" as a gameplay concept, with a webbed sequence of missions that would change based on your success or failure in a given area. This was abandoned in WC2, when it was discovered that players were generally more likely to reload and try again than to accept a bad result. Another important failure-related gameplay feature was the ability to eject from your craft, thus living to fight another day (unless something bad happened to you post-ejection). These mechanics helped "defeat" to feel like a more natural part of the setting, instead of a thing that should be ignored and erased ("not canon", as it were).

In the first game, morality is simple; the Kilrathi are the enemy. They are not just an enemy, they are the enemy: an implacable, non-negotiating race of super-warriors who have the darkest possible plans for Earth. There is zero reason to feel remorse for killing a Kilrathi, and many reasons to feel good about it. Like orcs in most fantasy, the Kilrathi is a remorseless aggressor who can only be stopped with violence, thus justifying a gameplay scheme based entirely around killing.

In WC2 the idea is introduced that not all Kilrathi are like that; a defector Kilrathi, nicknamed "Hobbes", joins your crew and flies alongside you. In addition, there is a revolt in one of the Kilrathi colonies, suggesting that not all the Kilrathi support their totalitarian government. These simple additions transformed the Kilrathi from "100% merciless killers" to "99% merciless killers", a change that warranted some introspection. The game certainly addresses the issue, as Blair begins to question his own attitude towards the Kilrathi and the potential that peace could be reached.


One of the more troubling twists in the game is the fact that Hobbes turns out to be a traitor. While this is not by itself a bad plot twist, in context Hobbes is the only friendly Kilrathi that exists. Obviously a few other ones exist, but Hobbes is the only one that the player ever sees or talks to. As such, the ratio shifts from the Kilrathi being "99% merciless killers" back to "100% merciless killers, and also 1% duplicitous backstabbers".

Wing Commander is a game where you never actually command any wings and that legitimately bothers me. It bothers me because if you strip away the "space ace" stuff you have a pretty solid premise: a roster of well-characterized pilots fighting a serious war against an aggressor. The setting is compromised by the need to make the player feel better than everyone else, and if you took that element away and turned it into something more like X-COM, you'd have a better product overall.

Okay, done? Great. I just explained everything I feel about video games in one accessibly-written article.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

KISS: "Gamer Culture"

Keep ISimple, Stupid:

A concise analysis of Gamer Culture

Gamer Identity is a concept built in opposition; which is to say, without societal distaste for gaming, "gamers" would not exist. People enjoy movies casually, and while there are people who are dedicated to the art of filmography, "film buff" and "gamer" do not have the same connotations. Gamer Identity exists because gamers were treated like outcasts and weirdos, and as a result were forced to socialize primarily with other outcasts and weirdos.

However, it is the year 2014, and for the most part things are different now. If a gamer is treated like an outcast and a weirdo now, it's probably because the are an outcast and a weirdo, not because they're a gamer. Yet you can still see a great deal of bitterness at the old wounds; one of the most notable ways this manifests itself is in hatred for "fake geeks". "Who do they think they are", the argument goes, "to try to get in on gaming as an identity without having to endure that outcast status?"

Well, I grew up in the 90s, and I was part of that "original caste" of gamers. I was a person who played games and was treated like an outsider, although not necessarily in that order. And the thing about it is, I got past it. I came out the other side. I watch people who are what I used to be, and all I can wait for them to do is either wake up or destroy themselves.

The thing is, ultimately, there is only one concept that "gamerdom" stands for: the right to not be made fun of for fucking around in an electronic toy.

Take everything you know about GamerGate and run it through that filter.

Gamers think SJWs are "too sensitive". In reality, the gamer wants to preserve their right to not be made fun of for fucking around in an electronic toy. This issue is, to them, a core concept of who they are, and yet somehow they believe that other people are too sensitive. Not them. Other people.

You know, I'd love to go on about this, but there's really nothing else to it. It doesn't matter if gamers invoke "journalistic freedom" or "artistic integrity", ultimately every discussion is going to turn back to the right to not be made fun of for fucking around in an electronic toy. And hey, "gamergaters" aren't the only ones who really care about that right! Lots of people do. Lots of people get upset if you make fun of them for fucking around in an electronic toy. It's basically a prerequisite for being the kind of person who spends their life fucking around with an electronic toy.

Well, personally, I'd argue that maybe you should grow the fuck up, you huge stupid baby, but a more constructive alternative is to try to understand what you have in common with your SJW opponents so you can see that you're actually not that different. Both of you care about "artistic freedom", to an extent. Both of you participate in a hobby where you do immoral, stupid things and justify it because it's "just a game". Both of you are basically idiots trying to pretend like you know what big people are talking about.


but no seriously grow the fuck up 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Semper Games


Imagine an empty universe. Imagine nothingness. This is a universe without God, without a creator, without a guiding hand. It was not *made*. It simply *is*.

Populate this universe with the celestial objects - stars and planets and all cosmic entities in between.

Now add to one planet the element of water - and from water, emerge life.

Now we wait.

Life mutates. The drive to live is mutation - a beneficial one, at least for purposes of survival. The beings that do not have these instincts die. The ones that do live. This does not mean that those biological instincts are the way life should be. Rather, they are self-justifying: they exist because they helped life survive. This, and only this, is their purpose. Such is the way of "biological truths".

Many animals exist that failed to breed. They died. But in truth, so does every other animal. Death is the common curse. Why, then, is breeding important? It isn't. It's simply a trait that is passed on. The reason it is passed on is because it is a trait that supports being passed on. Breeding does not save you from death. Failing to breed does not damn you. You are, and then you aren't. You are not graded. You are not scored. It is not objectively possible to waste your life.

At any moment, you could be killed. This would not be an event with purpose or greater cause. It would simply be what happened.

There is no purpose but that which we give ourselves, or which we allow others to give us.


A problem I have with a lot of philosophers is that they're essentially working under the assumption that "something important" exists. For many, this is the existence of the divine - that they firmly believe God exists, and their philosophies are founded in working around or with God's plan for them. René Descartes famously examined every possible assumption he had, down to his own existence - but concluded ultimately that he must not be deceived, because a Just God would not allow it. He could not bring himself to truly doubt the existence of God, even when he was intent on questioning everything else.

For others, the concern is more material. Ayn Rand labored under the idea that it was objectively valuable to pursue prosperity. Now I could certainly trot out quotes about her views on the rich (they're great and deserve everything they have and they got it all themselves) or the poor (they're parasitic idiots who couldn't sustain themselves for a week). But I think this one sums it up a lot better:

"They (Native Americans) didn't have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using. What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their 'right' to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent."

Ayn Rand's belief is that it is an Important Truth that progress is good and anti-progress is bad. Progress is more important than the autonomy, and lives, of the native peoples, and she holds then in contempt for failing to recognize that. She can't prove that value, of course, because it is a subjective belief. It is an opinion. But it is an opinion that she regards as unassailable and objective. She does not consider an alternative, because the criteria she uses to make decisions is founded in the intrinsic idea that progress is good.

If you were interested in defending civilization by its merits, you could mention things like medicine and plumbing and industry. Theoretically, you could make the argument that "civilization" as a concept includes many things that improve the life of the citizens within it. However, to do so, you would have to weigh that against the human beings killed in its name. This is not something Ayn Rand does because she does not care about those things - she cares about Progress itself. And if "progress" includes her living in luxury as the rightful inheritor of profit, then all the better for it. Naturally, Rand's philosophy was a big hit with people who want to be rich, selfish, elitist, and morally justified.

Most of the "great philosophers" operate in this way. They have an idea of the way the world should work, and they try to come up with reasons why it's the way the world has to work. Reading classical philosophy is a lot like reading the works of Freud - it's useful in a historical sense, but in an objective sense it's people without training trying to stumble across the truth. Freud is the "father of psychology", but he was also biased and arrogant, leading into his preferred conclusions without real concern for methodology or the well-being of his patients. In much the same way most of the great classical philosophers are essentially setting out "the way they think the world works" and then trying to justify it after the fact with their own theoretical anecdotes.

A philosopher believes that their beliefs are correct because they believe they must.

The counter-question is always "and what if we don't?"


Now, me, I'm a bit of a philosopher myself. I believe in the sanctity and primacy of reality. I believe that stories should aspire to something beyond pure entertainment - to truly connect with the real world, with real people and real stories. Reality comes first, real people and real stories, and fiction should - at best - try to skim off of the beauty of reality. It disgusts me - disgusts me - when people cry over fictional characters more than they cry over real people. It sickens me when people give more attention to a fictional story about war atrocities and "game narrative theory" than they do to real wars. It shows me, over and over, that people are more concerned about stroking their own egos (in one way or another) than actually learning about the world around them.

Recently, some of that kind of stuff has been in the limelight. Battlefield: Hardline brought out the idea that dehumanizing a group of people in order to justify violence being "fun" is distasteful and disrespectful. Hey, guess what, that's exactly how I feel about most video game violence. The idea of using something like that as entertainment is abhorrent to me. But most gamers are still basically okay with it, because that's the reality they grew up in.

Once, I wrote an article about the depiction of "easy violence". In this article I didn't even bring up the idea that it's wrong to pantomime murder - instead, I challenged the way we view escapism. "Killing" is generally a self-indulgent act in gaming, but it's also usually a pointlessly easy one. Is there a reason to get a thrill from pretending to kill an enemy who was barely capable of fighting back? Is there a reason to think it's cool and exciting to put a reticle over a guy and launch a yellow blob at him that bursts into jelly? Is this why we game?

Another time, I wrote an article about the way people use "realism". In that article I pointed out that many people (on all sides of the political spectrum) will use "realism" as a good thing and "non-realism" as a bad thing, but they will do so in very select instances. Some people will say that women shouldn't be allowed to fight or be stronger than a man, because that's "unrealistic". Other people will say that it's wrong for armor to have breast-shaped indentations, because that's "unrealistic". However, these kinds of complaints tend to float in a sea of abstract, disjointed design decisions. There is no true adherence to realism - it is simply invoked as a self-justified concept, with its own intrinsic moral value. And, of course, it's difficult to be so certain about what is "realistic" when we ourselves don't know all the facts about reality.

Almost all of my early articles had the same basic concept even when they were talking about wildly different topics: they were trying to teach people that realism itself is good, not just the concepts behind it. Inevitably fiction must differ from reality (that's why this is Exploring Believability and not Exploring Realism), but the more coherent realism you can put into a work, the better it'll be. And by "better" I mean in terms of things like visceral reactions, logical coherence, and real-world engagement. In fact, I told everyone this in the very first article I wrote on this site.

But now here comes the question: "and what if we don't?"


The answer is "nothing". Nothing happens if you don't adhere to realism. There is no objective purpose to life. It is impossible to "waste" life objectively. Life may be spent however the living being wishes (physical constraints aside).

FACT: A walking simulator is objectively not a waste of time.

FACT: A dating simulator is not objectively a waste of time.

FACT: A depression simulator is objectively not a waste of time.

FACT: A murder simulator is not objectively a waste of time.

The worst thing I can promise you, objectively, is that you will be hated by someone, somewhere. This is inevitable. But still, you don't want it.

How many of you are familiar with Christian Weston Chandler? Yeah, he's kind of a weird guy. Got a lot of problems. Easy to make fun of. Except, the problem is, a lot of the people making fun of him were basically just as weird and degenerate and societally-outcast as he was. What grounds did they have to mock him, apart from the safety of not being on display? What right did these shitbag nerds have to point and laugh at another shitbag nerd?

There's a really wonderful and enlightening event from Chris' life called Father Call. It's a complete dressing-down of Chris' inflated ego and sense of self-worth, where a societally revered individual (a veteran, a father, a provider) tears apart a societally hated individual (a failure, a blowhard, a guy who makes jokes about 9/11). Lots of people laughed at it. How many of them, I wonder, were nervous on the inside? How many of them compared their lives to Chris' and realized, oh, right, maybe I'm not as different as I'd like to think? Maybe, just maybe, I'm also a person that society despises?

"You are all bronies to me." - @ExpBelieve, twitter dot com

Of course the objective answer to this is that being hated is only bad if you care about the opinion of the people who hate you. Christian Weston Chandler could bundle himself up in his delusions and live totally happy on the taxpayer's dollar for the rest of his life. He can't get a girlfriend, sure, because that would require someone else thinking well of him - but he can at least get an anime bodypillow.

Why do we game? Because gaming is that blanket. Gaming is that bodypillow. Gaming is an institution founded on two things: self-indulgence and self-delusion. Games are about escapism - about pretending you're cool and important and likeable even when you're not. Games are about being better than everyone else. Games are about being stronger than everyone else. Games are about "romances" that are easy and reliable because there's no human being on the other end with opinions and values of their own.

And if you tell nerds how pathetic they are, they get so upset, my droogs. If you could harvest outrage, you would have no greater source than telling nerds they're pathetic. As much as they mock SJWs for daring to care about issues (and also "not doing real activism"), they themselves are the most sensitive demographic in the world. Because despite their "detached exteriors", they know what they are. Despite their "thick skins", they know how people feel about them. Despite the masks they wear, they know what's coming.

Hey, everyone, who wants to laugh at the nerd?

Despite everything they do - because of everything they do - gamers are losing right now. You know why? They're attacking the only people who could give their vapid medium an image improvement - the only people who could polish that turd up enough to make it respectable. They're organizing as one entity to do the kind of stupid shit that Jack Thompson could only dream of. For years, anti-game people had to make do with loosely connecting games to shootings. But now, here it is: an entire subculture organizing to do overt, repulsive activities. People who lived their lives not giving a shit about what other people thought of their body pillows and their murder simulators are now forced into answering the ringing phone. They hope, vainly, that an anime character will somehow turn it all around for them and make society ignore them again. Ring. Ring. Ring.

It's the Father Call.

Pick up the phone.