780610 is a quasi-random number.

Comédie et Tragédie

July 15, 2008 essay

Comedy :)

I think I can classify most kinds of comedy into two broad categories: pattern-matching and pattern-breaking. I don’t consider this groundbreaking stuff by any means.

Pattern-matching comedy, much as its name describes, involves humor found by comparing some pattern A with some pattern B (or more, depending on how tricky you wish to get). There are varying degrees of subtlety. At its most blatant, pattern-matching is basically a night show monologue. “Have you ever noticed…?” or “Today it was so hot…/How hot was it!?” Pattern-matching includes parody and satire, some of which can be notably difficult to distinguish from the real thing. This kind of comedy relies heavily on the fact that the audience will recognize both patterns. Moreover, the more subtle the joke is, the more weight is put on the presumption that the audience can match the patterns by itself.

This is what gives rise to lowest-common-denominator humor. It makes the apparent popularity of bodily-functions- and sex-as-comedy pretty straightforward: they are about the most universal experiences we have. Even the crass rise of pop-reference-as-comedy is taking for granted the ubiquity of culture to provide easy laughter. Humor as pattern-matching is a pretty simple explanation for in-jokes and memes. The further you go outside of 4chan, for example, the less interesting many of its memes become, even if they are voraciously devoured by 4channers. It’s because outsides don’t share those same patterns, and can’t match them. Thus, humor doesn’t follow. Hilarity doesn’t ensue.

4chan also tends to mash up patterns in strange ways, or take memes in absurd directions. This is pattern-breaking comedy. It is humored derived by skirting expectations. Pattern-combination is a subset and, in fact, may lie on a continuum between pattern-matching and pattern-breaking. If one could combine two memes that have no outward relationship to each other, but somehow merge into a weird, synergistic humor, this would fall under pattern-breaking. Pure pattern-breaking — simply eschewing the expected — is absurdist comedy. It is surreal and usually hard to grasp out of context. Williams Street cartoons tend to do this, to greater or lesser effect. They are sometimes glorious non-sequitors, sometimes ineffectual randomness.

But because there are still patterns at work — a pattern still had to exist to be broken — it is very difficult to make pure pattern-breaking be universally funny. If the initial pattern makes no real impression on the viewer, then the subsequent break will simply be nonsensical, not funny. Everyone brings their own patterns to humor; some patterns are more dependable within certain social constructs. People who go to see quirky indie movies are going to appreciate quirky indie humor. People expecting explosions will probably be less amused.

Tragedy :(

So, on the other side of the scale, there is tragedy. There are, I would hazard to propose, also two kinds of tragedy: pattern-fulfilling and pattern-breaking. Tricky — eh? — as both comedy and tragedy involve pattern-breaking.

Pattern-fulfilling tragedy is simply the misfortune of the inevitable. It is the knot that forms in one’s stomach when the obvious, unfortunate truth presents itself early and refuses to go away. It is something of a specialized pattern-matching, and as such it depends on the audience being able to follow a tragic story to its conclusion before the story is done. Because of this, most people are uncomfortable with pattern-fulfilling tragedies. In the case of film, it is hard to predict the tragic ending and then sit helplessly as it plays out. For that reason, pattern-fulfilling tends to play better as shorter narratives. This is why Pixar can get away with it for their shorts, but not their features.

It is interesting, on the other hand, to consider pattern-breaking tragedy. Romeo and Juliet can be considered a prime, if not archtypal, example of pattern-breaking tragedy: where elements of the plot seem to suggest things may not end tragically — that they, in fact, may turn out well — but near the end are twisted in terrible ways. The naturalness of this twist tends to have its effect on the audience; if it feels too forced or absurd, they will react infavorably: the tragic break does not feel right by the pattern that has set it up.

Patterns and humans being what they are, tragedy can have the unintended consequence of comedy, and vice versa. When one person looks at a story and is striken by grief, and another is filled with laughter, then the fickle fracturing of patterns is at work. Not only are different patterns brought to bear upon a narrative, but they and the new pattern are interpreted in personal ways. And this experience forms new patterns, reinforces current ones, or occasionally shatters them.

See what I did there? “Hilarity ensues” is a meme. If you’re familiar with it, you may have reacted pleasantly to it, or found it obvious and uninteresting. If you were not familiar with it, you may have assumed it was a joke you didn’t get, or perhaps ignored it outright. Even though I threw the word “doesn’t” in there, I wouldn’t call this pattern-breaking.

CRPGs: Two Experiences in One (an Ode to FF6)

May 21, 2005 essay

I remember Final Fantasy VI fondly. FF6 is probably the one game I have the deepest nostalgic pining for. After that would, I guess, be A Link to the Past, but I’ve not given this much thought. Furthermore, I’m not saying that I feel FF6 is the best video game of all time. That is a very different discussion.

This discussion, however, is focused squarely on something that has generally been accepted by the role-playing audience: that CRPGs are really just stories with bits of a game between chapters. They are, almost fundamentally, two separate but intertwined experiences.

Ludologists and narrat..o..logists(?) have a field day here. The myth is that ludologists enjoy games for the way they’re played while narratologists prefer the enjoyment they get from the experiential story of a game. The latter case can mean either the writer-crafted story as one might find in a Final Fantasy game, or a more player-centric story as one may devise from Animal Crossing. This is sort of a false dichotomy, probably created just for the sake of making argument easier.

But FF6, like most (all?) CRPGs, has segments of story and segments of gameplay which alternate. It opens with a story segment: you are introduced to Terra and the mission which snowballs into the rest of the plot. Upon learning your mission, the next segment has you playing to achieve the goal. There is no “story” during this period, save for what might be called “filler” material — i.e. things that would be edited out of a movie. No one will care about your goofy encounters with the strange, malicious cave rats. But this is important to you, the player, as you are now within the second experience of the game: the experience of general survival and development. One you reach a predetermined location, the game returns to story mode.

FF6, I would argue, gained most of its strength through its story experience. Its experience as a pure game was enjoyable at best, tolerable on average, and frustrating at worst. To be fair, some players of the game really get into the combat. They may, perhaps, derive more pleasure from following and maximizing stats than from the actual plot. I am not that kind of player; I feel the stats detract from the story, and that as long as I can defeat a boss, my characters are Good Enough. This is not to the advantage of the game as a whole, of course.

Would FF6 have made a great movie? An enjoyable novel? That’s hard to tell, but my instinct is to say “not as-is”. There are nuances inherent in player agency that make the story of a game much more personal. Certain moments in the game — where the party is divided into multiple, smaller teams that must work together — gain strength from the player’s immediate control. The sense of working together is enhanced because now the player must, fundamentally, coordinate with him- or herself. The characters’ survival will depend on the player’s ability to puzzle solve and form well-balanced parties. Small touches like this are where the gameplay elements of FF6 shine. They serve to sharpen the experience that the story is relating to the player.

But ah! The story! FF6 becomes literally about an opera along the course of its plot, and I think this serves to emphasize a strong hypothesis I’ve had about games in general, and FF6 in particular: that they are our generation’s operas and plays. Their characters, their stories, their music. This obviously can’t and won’t apply to all games. And typically this applies only to CRPGs. But when all the right elements come together, they can have all the force of a Carmina Burana or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I think that after FF6, some of this magic was lost with the series. FF7 hit hard with its snazzy FMV but it simply doesn’t resonate with me. I remember little of it. The same with its sequels. I have barely made a dent in FFX, which I started and stopped many months ago. I can accept that this may be, partly, the work of nostalgia, but I think it goes deeper. The stories lost some thematic strength, perhaps. The marriage of its scripted elements to its gameplay elements weren’t as strong. It may be that iterate attempts to make the gameplay more immersive and enjoyable on its own began fracturing the two game experiences further apart. In other words, it was a victim of its own success.

This, I think, really is at the heart of my inability to get caught up into FFX. The experience has been so fractured that it is not very accessible to me in the short play-times I’m allotted. Each step of the story so far has only made it more complex and unintelligible. But the gameplay felt like a completely different experience. Something is broken between the two, but I’d have to play more and really think about it to decide what may be the culprit. What is different here than from earlier installations? I don’t think it’s simply the change that the battle interface underwent. Something else; something that reaches more deeply into the core of the two experiences.

I think the story experiences of FF6 are worthy of the same critical treatment as a Shakespearan play. It may be that the game will not withstand this level of study but I feel that there’s a lot to be taken from the story. Just its thematic treatment of family dynamics (maternal or paternal obligations; the relationship of siblings, etc.) is worthy of deeper consideration, and there’s probably plenty of flourishes, both broad and delicate, that I have forgotten.

CRPGs can offer two separate but intertwined experiences; how strong each is on its own is, I could argue, less important than how strongly they play upon (and against) one another. FF6 found a careful but not entirely perfect balance. That sensitivity may have been lost to more recent volumes of the series, but it need not be gone forever.

(I’d like to apologize for being so focused on Final Fantasy as opposed to other CRPGS. The reason — and it’s a good one — is simply that I’ve not played any other CRPGs. Not in the same scope, at least; I’ve played Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. But I’ve not had much experience with Lunar or Arc the Lad or Baldur’s Gate or whatnot. I’m not proud of this fact, per se. I’m just explaining what may be perceived as deliberate bias.)

A Tale in the Desert, Tale 2: More Thoughts

November 20, 2004 review

There’s one word I’ve come across a few times in more sophisticated game design reviews that never really “clicked” for me. I’d have to look up the meaning, sorta go “oh”, and then immediately forget what it meant. Repeatedly. Now that I’ve played more of A Tale in the Desert, I understand fully what this word means. Furthermore, ATitD, I believe, suffers from a conflict between concept and execution. It’s ostensibly about building a society, but is, in effect, a micro-management game.

orthogonality

In Beyond Good and Evil — which I’m using only because it was my last review — you could switch fairly seamlessly between the main story, finding pearls, or finding animals. Doing one did not necessarily benefit doing the others (although, pleasantly, it often did). These were orthogonal design elements. That’s an academic froo-froo term for “perpendicular”.

ATitD doesn’t have this.

There are seven different tracks — jobs, more or less — in Egypt. You pass an initiation and follow down that path. You’re certainly not locked in place, and can, in fact, master all seven. This is unlikely, however, unless you are the android creation of Dr. Destructo and thus need no food or sleep.

You advance through each track via a series of tests. These tests are no small feat, and at times their completion is not guaranteed. For example, the initiation into Art requires you build a sculpture that is approved by some number of citizens and, I believe, not also condemned by some other number. This isn’t so hard, as Egyptians are not terribly finicky about art and you can usually just ask people to help out as a favor. But you get the gist; these aren’t just quests involving slaying the Ancient Dragon of Argokinoth.

Thus, it’s usually preferrable that a more casual player progress in one field, and not spread out too thin, otherwise he/she will not advance far in any field. Compound this with the massive amounts of item-construction that is required. An example for producing linen, a pretty useful item for “buying” certain skills:

1) Grow flax from seeds
2) Collect flax and rot it in water
3) Process rotten flax in a hackling rake in three steps to produce lint
4) Spin lint in a distaff to produce thread
5) Use handloom to weave thread into linen

Can you imagine doing this on your own, everytime you want linen? Keep in mind each step is not at all instantaneous. You need your guild(s) to help you. This is bad for unsociable people like myself. But I illustrate this point as a non-trivial example of the tedium, the micro-management, that this game necessitates. Moving linearly through one track can be such a time-consuming task for people who cannot spend over 20 hours of play a week that “orthogonally” taking a break from this tedium for something else — likely just as tedious — is not viable.

One solution to this is to provide a richer array of short-term activities that can both provide immediate enjoyment and add to long-term goals. Another solution is abtracting certain “tedious” tasks in a way that makes them more game-like (read “fun”). Yet another solution would simply be to make things happen faster.

micro-management

ATitD, lead design Teppy states, is supposed to be a game about building a “perfect society”. Not naively, he knows this is impossible but wants to see how a community will react when faced with long-term planning problems. So this lack of short-term goals is not, necessarily, accidental.

However, I have to take issue with the conflicts between high-level societal dilemmas and low-level chores such as growing cabbage and burning it to make ash. They are not necessarily in opposition, but the balance is very delicate. Simulations usually attempt this sort of thing. SimCity is certainly about long-term planning if you are trying to build a megalopolis, but you must resolve many low-level functions such as water and power management. ATitD’s flaw, I would say, has more to do with the extreme levels of and excessive time that needs to be spent on the low-level activites.

SimCity, and other simulators, will often provide instant feedback from your input; a change in city zoning could have immediately recognizable effects on traffic and population. But ATitD is not a simulator; it can rarely provide instant feedback. There is no immediate connection between time spent on one chore and reward for your efforts. A standard RPG will almost always give you experience points and/or gold for slaying an enemy. That’s instant feedback for a few minutes of combat. Was it worth it? No? Fight something else. But how do you know that gathering the material to build a mine, then finding a partiular mining location, then spending an hour or more excavating will produce sufficient results? Certainly you don’t know how this will better your society. Was it worth it? You don’t know. But you do need that copper ore. So you can smelt it. To make copper. For the copperwire. To donate to research.

One suggestion I have is to “tier” experienced players so that working the same amount of material will produce more results. This abstracts the process without changing it, meanwhile allowing players who have “payed their dues” to be more efficient.

wrap up

ATitD was my first MMOG exactly because it allowed me to associate with other players in a non-confrontational way. I found this to be important, as I was wary of games with newbies or elitists dragging down my gameplay experience. But these issues of orthogonality and micro-management, which overlap quite a bit, have made this game hard for me. Partly because I’m simply not social — which is a personal flaw, unrelated to the game — and because I simply don’t have enough time to be a very productive player and feel my monthly fee is being spent effectively. I believe the game is responsible for this.

I understand there are counterpoints to these criticisms. People say to join more guilds, especially those specifically suited to your goals. They suggest you find something you like doing, and stick with that, then trade with others for what you need. The first idea I find unworkable for myself; I do not have the time to organize or be organized by a guild, especially several. The second, I also find, would be much more workable if one had more time to play, and thus produce one’s wares, and had a bigger network of people willing to trade.

I believe that ultimately, I don’t dislike the system per se, but I believe it needs to be severely sped up, abstracted more, and needs to gain a better variety of engaging activities; not chores. I do feel A Tale in the Desert should be applauded for not being the same-ol’-same-ol’, but when exploring uncharted ground, you may not always arrive in friendly territory.

laterearlier