August 28th

This week’s blogging has me thinking about how developers manage the expectations of others, the roots of protagonists’ personal ethics, and how players’ morality is shaped by the expectations of people around us. Blame, shame and guilt chase each other around the whole of this roundup, as writers address the responsibilities of developers, the behaviour of players, and the moral implications of game systems.

Some morsel of meaning

The first thoughts on expectation management come here with reference to the game development process itself, and how the overwhelming expectations of others can cause the creative process to spiral out of control.

  • In the Army Now: The Making of ‘Full Spectrum Warrior’ | VICE (Content warning: war zone experiences)
    Ed Smith’s piece on game development as military research is interesting from a few different angles, raising issues about the balance between fun and realism and the forces that can cause a project to balloon beyond realistic expectations.
  • Life Support At 75 Per Cent | Corey Milne
    Corey Milne’s core argument on No Man’s Sky is one that has by now become familiar. However, he adds to it an intriguing parallel between the narrative prop of “life support” and the notion of numerical balance as the lifeblood of game design.

“It needs crafting. It needs mining. Or else what is there to do? What would be the point of ochre sunsets and emerald bluffs, if there were no systems to encourage play? To grant some morsel of meaning to the infinity they have struck a vein of the most common mineral in the gaming ecosystem. The dopamine shitting, habit forming, repetitive gameplay feedback loop. “

No Man’s Sky

Moving on from Corey Milne’s piece above, these three articles on the discover-em-up deal with the mismatched expectations that come from differing experiences with other texts in other media.

“Procedural generation has a vocabulary that you’ll most likely be familiar with. It uses words like discoveruniqueendlessforeverreplayable. It talks in numbers and powers of ten, and bigger is always better. These words are not necessarily used falsely (although I’m sure they are in some instances, but I’m not here to cast aspersions), but intentionally or not they do mislead people, because they are very easily interpreted in a lot of different ways. ‘Every Planet Unique’ might mean that each planet has a complex sci-fi backstory rich enough to fill a two-part Star Trek episode. It might also mean that, mathematically speaking, there’s a rock somewhere on the planet that doesn’t look like any other rock in the universe. Uniqueness almost always is used in the weakest, most technically correct way possible. As Kate Compton quipped in her amazing post about procedural generators, every bowl of oatmeal is unique.”

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

While the release of No Man’s Sky has caused reflection on what happens when a game’s affordances are over-hyped, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is provoking discussion about the expectations that come from trying to situate an underdeveloped story in complex contemporary social issues.

“As it happens, not two days before the Human by Design conference, a coalition of activists and organizers came together with a platform of demands under the Black Lives Matter name. Human by Design too, culminated in a manifesto of sorts, entitled “An Ethical Framework for Human Augmentation.” It calls on those invested in the future of augmentation to “promote justice,” and notes the moral imperative to ensure equitable access and protections for all peoples. But the last lines one might have encountered at the conference might have been the strangely confrontational ones on a sign exiting the theater: “The conversation is moving forward. Are you?” The question prompts another, equally rhetorical one: in the zeal for an augmented future, is there an eagerness now to leave inconvenient criticism, and inconvenient people, behind?”

Feeding on the fallen

From the ethics of transhumanism to the morality tales of murder mysteries and magical myths.

“Magic in The Witcher is a manifest part of the game’s moral make-up – monsters are occasionally simple remnants of a wild world, but more often than not the supernatural represents a wound or a wronging. There are wraiths staked to the land by misdeeds, parasitic shadow spirits called Hymns which feed on guilt, and above all various species of necrophage – ghouls and nekkers and drowners – feeding on the fallen, digging up corpses, dragging our transgressions back into the light. Geralt’s bestiary is thick and thriving, a compendium of how the faults and failures of the living are remembered by the dead, and otherwise transfigured into the monstrous and inhuman.”

Blame and shame

Following swiftly behind guilt is its best friend, shame. These pieces look at how the opinion of others shapes behaviour in games.

“[…] because Pokémon Go takes you out of your house to stalk the neighborhood in search of a wild Rhyhorn, it also means that players are gaming in public in a highly conspicuous way. This is very different from the smartphone games that function as something to do while waiting in line or in general insufficiently entertained by life. When I walk around the neighborhood with my smartphone in hand and then stand still for thirty seconds, flicking my finger on my screen, most people know perfectly well what I’m doing and that I’m relatively invested in it. And I’m pretty sure they’re judging me. “

Bloodthirst

In yet more reflections on ethics, these pieces consider how the way that we treat others contributes to the construction of the world around us.

“Despite the wealth of insight the Pokedex provides each generation of monsters, the actual behavior of the monsters is identical. All Pokemon will jump at the chance to attack any kids who wander into the grass. All Pokemon are evidently bloodthirsty, regardless of what the Pokedex may tell you about their temperament. When caught, you can find descriptions of the unique nature of your Pokemon’s personality, but all that does is provide a cute code for disguising what numbers are higher or lower than average, and your jolly Eevee and adamant Eevee will be identical in how they bounce up and down in their pokeball.”

Improbable evolutions

Finally, these two pieces on Kotaku mirror each other beautifully, reflecting on the human response to impermanence.

“One sub-plot of the Olympic Games involves humankind’s struggle with time itself. Can an Olympian exit the Olympics, return to their nation, and then repeat the cycle of competition, qualification, and excellence? At this year’s Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, we saw Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt each achieve this particularly improbable evolution.”


Speaking of the human struggle against time, you have a couple of days left to submit articles on “bugs” to Blogs of the Round Table. And with the end of the month upon us, it’s a good time to consider supporting us on Patreon so that we can keep Critical Distance going at full capacity. Finally, if you read any pieces that show you a new way of thinking about games, please do pass them along!