Fetch Quest

I wrote a bit of IF where I try and emulate every single possible configuration of fetch-quest tropes. Maybe that’s fun? Here it is:

http://philome.la/thing_stuff/fetch-quest

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Fetch Quest

Reflections on The Beginner’s Guide

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One of the things that happens at the beginning of The Beginner’s Guide is that Davey Wreden  gives you his email address. Of all the details in this dense, tightly packed game, this is the one that I found myself thinking about long after it was over. It’s like this: My reaction to the end of the game, like many other people, was to sit there in silence for a while, staring at the title screen, thinking about phoning my loved ones. After a while, though, I remembered Wreden’s email address and I opened up gmail and typed up a message to send to him. After a minute, I deleted that email and wrote another one. I deleted that one too. I couldn’t work out what I wanted to say to him, but I felt like there was something.

My reaction to the game was a little softer than that of Laura Hudson, whose excellent writeup is over on Offworld. She reports that when she finished the game, she had to walk around the block in the middle of the night to work off her anger. The most interesting thing about her review was that she seemed at first to believe that the story told by the game was true. Spoiler alert, but something that The Beginner’s Guide tries to do is to set up a narrative about a violation of privacy in which the player, by playing a set of games that were not meant for them, is complicit. The game presents itself as a guided tour by Wreden himself through a collection of games authored by someone named Coda. These games were not intended for mass release, and at some point in the game the player realises that by releasing them (onto Steam, as a real life commercial release), Wreden has fundamentally violated Coda’s desire for privacy. The game suggests that Wreden’s motives for releasing the game in this way were selfish ones: He craved the validation of the gaming community, and wanted to be recognised as the hero who raised Coda from obscurity.

Now, I assumed from the off that all of this was a fictional construct, but Laura Hudson seemed not to. Talking about her first playthrough of the game, she says “At the time, I was assuming—wrongly, I think—that the game told a true story, rather than a “true” one, that it depicted people and events in the real world rather than inventing characters real enough to make us suspend our disbelief.”  The gut wrench she describes, the violation, the sense of anger – I recognise those reactions from my first playthrough but I don’t recognise the intensity of feeling she describes. Of course, I am not a full-time games journalist. Perhaps if I was, the experience Hudson describes would make more sense to me. As it stands, the only time I’m likely to have a game developer describing a game to me while I play it is in a fictional context. Or perhaps I’m too much of a cynic.

Whether it’s actually true or not is trivial, really. It’s certainly emotionally true. And that, I think, is why I feel driven to make use of Wreden’s email address[1]: Not because I believe his story is true, but because I want to test the limits of the thing. How far into the quotidian does the strangeness of this game extend? If I sent him an email, would I get a response from Davey the celebrated game developer, admonishing my naivety in believing that this was anything other than a cleverly designed piece of fiction? Or would I hear from Davey the fictional character, who might give me news about how Coda has responded to the release of his games? Would he simply ignore my email? Would I get a stock response, explaining his understanding of the whole thing?

It would be cheating, really. The game here is one of interpretation. As they play, the player is challenged to keep their interpretations of the character of Wreden and the character of Coda in mind simultaneously in order to figure out the nature of the relationship between them. The game makes this very difficult to do. The player is trying to make some sense of the worlds Coda has supposedly made, and keep track of the information relayed by Wreden’s classically unreliable narrator, and at the same time being forced to consider that the games they’re playing are not really by Coda, but have been modified by Wreden’s narrator to fit his shallow, compromised vision of what he wants them to be. There’s a lot going on and it’s further complicated by the fact this information is frequently thrust upon you at once. There are points in the game where Wreden is talking to you and at the same time words are appearing on the screen, or are written on the walls, and your attention is pulled in several directions at once. The effect is often one of information overload. At several points, the screen is flooded with more words than you could possibly read in the time allowed. It challenges you to make sense of it all.

But at the same time, the story that the game tells is one in which a human being is materially harmed by another human’s attempts to understand him entirely. The game gives us a case study in how distressing this experience of being interpreted and deconstructed can be, but it also provokes us into performing it. Davey has chosen to name his avatar after himself, and to read his lines in his own voice, and to reference real achievements that the real Davey has made in the world outside the game. It confronts us with its own fictionality, and asks us to make something out of it.

There are some moments, perhaps, where the integrity of this fiction starts to fall apart. The overshare that first cues us that our narrator is an unreliable one is nuanced and tentative but by the end I was finding the narrator’s admissions of guilt and shame somewhat implausible (although YMMV), given the fictional construct he establishes. Would this version of Davey, so pathologically obsessed with external validation, really lay himself bare so guilelessly? If his entire mission here was to gain the approval of others, doesn’t this brutal honesty betray his purpose? Why would he release this game at all?

But on the other hand, this dissonance doesn’t damage the experience one bit. By the time I reached the final slavo of Big Ideas in the Tower, where an anguished Wreden holds forth on themes of validation and privacy, I was expending all of my effort keeping track of he was saying and parsing and interpreting Coda’s strange wall-messages about the about the lampposts the vandalism of the cleaning game. I had no energy left to question anything so esoteric. I was so invested in the character drama that the implausibility of Wreden’s final expressive breakdown didn’t bother me in the slightest, and it’s only in hindsight that I feel like something is amiss. But the fact that I’ve thought about it at all is because there is some part of me that wants to treat the fiction as though it is really true, and to probe it for inconsistencies.

I realise that it’s pretty silly, really, wanting to send Wreden an email, just because the game told me his address.  But the email address at the start of the game is a chiaroscuro. It’s a piece of theatre, put there to help you suspend your disbelief. It’s like the lovingly rendered cityscape in the background of a Mass Effect level. It’s an illusion whose verisimilitude lets you believe that you are interacting with something living, rather than something artificially constructed around your user experience. But unlike the cityscape, its effect is subtle. It gives you an awful lot to digest. If the real Davey Wreden reads this, and if the real Davey Wreden really is obsessed with gleaning validation from others, then he might take some pleasure in this: The game is clearly a bloody masterpiece. If you could enter games for the Booker prize, this would be well up on the shortlist. It should be on the syllabus for GCSE English. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

[1] This is obviously a hazardous exercise. I have burned my fingers in the past. There is a miraculous, ingenious card game on the market by the name of Skull, and the marketing for Skull pretends that it was invented by Hell’s Angels. I wanted desperately to know if this was true or not, and I did some research. Turns out, surprise surprise, that it isn’t true at all. Frankly, I was happier when I could at least believe that it was true. The reality is so much less exciting.

Reflections on The Beginner’s Guide

Talk to your kids about Dungeons and Dragons before somebody else does

It’s true that I’ve always been a nerd. Some years ago a friend of mine told me that her ex-boyfriend had envied me my easy grace in social situations, and this was as strange to me as if he had envied my ability to fly. We were students, at the time, living in halls. Whilst many of my peers were testing the limits of their newfound independence with sex and drugs, I spent much of that year sequestered in my room experiencing the golden age of indie games. Braid and Fez and Bastion were texts as central to my early adulthood as the tube map or Paradise Lost or the Arcade Fire’s second album. As time went by my fascination with games metastasized. In the last two years my particular poison has been board games, a bastard medium which has recently been made strangely new by the efforts of a cabal of dedicated designers and critics. In May of this year I accomplished something of a personal coup, acquiring a rare copy of a game called Cave Evil, and afterwards declared my collection of board games complete.

And then I was stuck. This stuff has always had an inflammatory effect on my imagination. I thrive on my fixations. I have complex opinions about Adventure Time and the trailer of the new Star Wars film. I’ve watched my fair share of anime. I could tell you all about the interstices of reddit, 4chan, the blogosphere, the world of webcomics. I could rattle off a list of what I consider to be the ‘classic’ Minecraft mods, from the early days. I spent six months’ worth of evenings last year carving a Settlers of Catan set out of wood. Vintage Nintendo games cause me to feel strange sensations of longing. I’m not sure what it is that unifies these things but somehow to me they all feel like sides of the same polyhedron. But Cave Evil occasioned a crisis: Once I had Cave Evil, I had nowhere else to go. I felt, fallaciously, that I had reached the limit of what this particular corner of culture could offer me. I had reached the bottom of the mine shaft, or so I thought.

And then, one evening around that time, I found myself in the corner of Stoke Newington’s Mascara Bar talking to a stranger about Dungeons and Dragons. He seemed earnest but I had my reservations. I was troubled by vast images out of spiritus mundi of introverted men with neckbeards shouting ‘Magic missile!’ and pretending to be goblins and doing all the voices – of a game where the rulebooks are hundreds of pages long, built on a substrate of the schlockiest of Tolkien cliches. But my newfound friend calmed my nerves. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s really, really good.” And damn it, he was absolutely right.

The rest is history. Since then, I have become like the guy on the back of the old fifty pound note who ‘can think of nothing but this machine’. Because this game, this marvelous institution of D&D, has managed to tickle a corner of my mind that no other game has ever reached. This is a game about telling a story. If, like me, you dabble in fiction, then this will either be the best or worst thing for you, or possibly both. Dungeons and Dragons is like crack for would-be novelists. It is an unending fountain of mental chewing gum. I find myself getting out of bed at 3AM to write down some idea I’ve had for a villain or a trap or a magic item. I mull over characters, monsters, motivations and schemes on my daily commute. And here’s the kicker: When you’re writing fiction, after you’re done with the mental exercise of having ideas you usually have to spend hours typing it all up, agonising over style and form and pace and structure and all this stuff that looms larger and larger the longer you spend writing. D&D requires no such upkeep. You jot down a handful of bullet points and when it comes to playing the game, you improvise around them. You get all the pleasure of creative writing without having to spend a minute hunched over a keyboard by yourself.

I should explain briefly how it works. One player is the Dungeon Master (bear with me), whose job is to run the game, telling the story, controlling the monsters, setting the scene and narrating the action. The other players control characters in this world, typically drawn from your stock roster of knights and wizards and thieves. They work as a team to overcome whatever bogeymen the Dungeon Master decides to put in their way. The role Dungeon Master comes with a lot of responsibilities, it’s true. As Abed puts it in a brilliant episode of Community, “I create a limitless universe and then bind it with rules.” A typical encounter might see the players accosted by a group of aggressive bandits. They might decide to fight them, or to talk to them. They might find out that the bandits have been forced into banditry because the factory where they were employed has closed. Or the players might try to deceive them, pretending to be travelling hermits with nothing worth stealing. They might cast a spell that makes the bandits temporarily suggestible, and try and recruit them to their heroic cause. In each case, the Dungeon Master determines the outcome of the player’s actions, often by rolling dice. Both the players and the Dungeon Master have a great deal of latitude to think creatively, and this leads to all kinds of peculiar situations developing. In one of my games, the players got the name of a local bigshot named M. Holdspar who was importing dangerous animals for his illegal fighting pits. One of the players dressed up as an insurance salesman and insinuated his way into M. Holdspar’s house. Another player, let’s call him ‘Fred’, hid outside the window. When Holdspar came down to the drawing room, Fred jumped in through the window with a crossbow, cast a sleep spell on the butler, and proceeded to rob M. Holdspar blind. In another game, the players are planning to throw out the mayor of a small town and install someone they know in the town hall. They’re on a quest to find a missing dwarf but along the way they’re committed to setting up something closely resembling an organised crime syndicate.

There is lots about the design of this thing that surprised me by its elegance. Coming at it from my background in board games, I’m still staggered by the idea that someone can sit down to play D&D for the first time without needing to listen to any kind of rules explanation. Being the Dungeon Master is hard work and requires a certain amount of preparation, but it’s also very mentally stimulating. It’s a provocation. “Here are one thousand granular elements of a story,” the game seems to ask. “What are you going to do with them?”

This game is wonderful, and entirely undeserving of the stigma that its name evokes. And the best thing of all, really, is that this is only the tip of the iceberg. There is, by now, of a whole genre of games of different levels of complexity built around this idea of a collaborative narrative. The fantasy setting of D&D is useful because it brings with it a whole accessible vernacular (everyone knows what a goblin looks like). The idea of magic is also a very appealing one in this narrative-gaming context because it imbues the universe of the game with a certain plasticity, letting the players experiment with moulding and reshaping the world that the narrator creates. However, if that’s not your speed then there are RPGs that draw on the works of HP Lovecraft, or that are set in the Star Wars universe. A little digging reveals a whole industry of small-brew homemade games. Some examples: Fiasco is a game that encourages players to construct farces inspired by Coen brothers movies. Monsterhearts is about romance in a high school full of monsters. Dog Eat Dog takes the formula and uses it to explore the horrors of colonialism, putting one player in the role of the colonist and the others into the roles of exploited natives. A Quiet Year is about a community surviving after a catastrophe has destroyed their way of life, and Microscope is about creating alternate histories, tackling questions like “What would have happened if aliens had landed in the middle of WW2?” or “What if the dinosaurs never died out?”

And I’m sure I’m only just scratching the surface of all of this. If you’re at all interested, now is the time to get involved. Dungeons and Dragons just got a major overhaul, and the new edition is by all accounts the best one there has ever been. It’s all discounted on Amazon, the starter set is fifteen quid, and the basic rules are available as a free PDF on the publishers’ website. If you’re reading this on a screen, you could download them right now, and if any of this sounds interesting then you probably should. This may well be the bottom of the nerd mineshaft but my goodness, have they ever got a good thing going on down here.

Talk to your kids about Dungeons and Dragons before somebody else does

American Sniper and the Lizard Conspiracy

That flag ain't gonna fly itself.
That flag ain’t gonna fly itself.

American Sniper is a hard film to watch because before you watch it you’ve already formed a perfectly defensible opinion about it based on the title and the poster. You assume that this is a thick piece of Islamophobic right-wing patriotic Republican propaganda, sharing its target demographic with one of the dumber Call of Duty games. Everything you read about it in the media would seem to corroborate this.

There’s a peverse appeal to these kinds of things. This is a cultural product of the Right, the Intolerant, the Enemy, in which their values are celebrated and their cultural myths enacted. But you have to wonder – maybe there’s something interesting here? Because you could spin it another way, conceivably. What about this: American Sniper is a film about a horrible human being, so thoroughly corrupted by the patriotic narrative of his home that he becomes a monster. The fact that the film seems so obviously to be a piece of propaganda for an abhorrent creed ought, ideally, to be beside the point, because what’s interesting in art isn’t the intention of the artist. Maybe if you try and watch a film like this from the point of view of an alien, as someone divorced from the icky mess of contemporary culture, then maybe a film like American Sniper is worth a watch.

After I watched Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace I had a similar kind of impulse vis-à-vis Atlas Shrugged and I had a crack at it but what I realised quickly about that book is that what art it contains is juvenile and paper-thin and that the novel itself is basically a long curmudgeonly gripe about woolly-minded lefties and how fat and ugly they are, and how sexy you can become purely by being a nasty selfish bastard.

So yeah, American Sniper. I mean, it’s Clint Eastwood. He’s the real deal, right? He’s won Oscars and stuff. But that isn’t the Clint Eastwood we get here. This is the Clint Eastwood who talks to chairs. The film opens with Bradly Cooper on a roof pointing his big gun at a woman and a child down below, in what looks like a serious moral dilemma because the kid has a grenade and he’s going to explode at some soldiers.

Then we flashback. Bradley Cooper is a child. He’s good at hunting deer and he sticks up to the bullies in school. His heroic Dad makes a speech about how you have to be a sheepdog or a sheep or a wolf and anyone who is either a sheep or a wolf is gonna get a whuppin’ in this house. Then 9/11 changes everything and then Cooper joins the army. Then begins this humanising story about how he has a hot wife he really loves and they have a cute baby that clearly isn’t real, in one of the most bizarre production fuck-ups that I have ever seen. That baby is clearly a doll. I don’t know what they were thinking. This romantic subplot gets a lot of screen time considering how little chemistry it contains and how profoundly uncomplicated it is. It’s sad, though, because both characters clearly think that the doll is real.

So, he’s a nice man and he loves his wife but he only really feels alive when he’s up on a roof doing army things, defending America and so on, so there’s a long training montage where Cooper totally bosses it and then he’s off to war. The scene with the moral dilemma happens again and it’s resolved nice and tidily this time when he shoots the kid and the woman, and he looks a little down about it for a minute but then his buddy tells him it’s OK because the kid had a grenade and Cooper had to defend America, and then we’re like ‘Great! That’s that!’ I get that this is all about an actual guy from actual recent history but you honeslty wouldn’t think so, watching this, because no real person ever had such a two-dimensionally simple time of it.

The meat of the film, by which I mean the only bit of the film that seems to have some thought behind it, comes in the scenes that make up more or less most of the rest of the film, in which Bradley Cooper pulls off some spectacular shots with his gun. He shoots people burying mines, people driving cars, people on other rooftops, all sorts. These are fantastically expensive-looking scenes with all kinds of daring camerawork and carefully established tension. If that sounds like your jam, bully for you. So in the end, basically, my conclusion is don’t bother with this film. Don’t even seed it on bittorrent. Watch Pacific Rim instead. It’s much better.

American Sniper and the Lizard Conspiracy

American Gods

One of the unanswerable questions that pops up in my life the whole time like a notification for a voicemail message I’m ignoring is ‘what do you want from books?’ and sometimes it’s worth thinking about but most of the time it isn’t. When I was a younger man I wanted books to be these tasty diversions that you sped through. My ideal book was one with a mystery on the first page, some brooding in the middle, a couple of good twists and a pretty final paragraph. I liked them to reward attention to detail. For reasons that were perfectly arbitrary, I preferred books that were not thrillers, not detective novels, not science-fiction and not fantasy, but on the other hand those genres so often did that other stuff right that for the most part I ignored this rule.

I’ve moved on somewhat in my thinking by now. These days, I like a book with mysteries but not answers. I don’t like a book to be sentimental. I still like a bit of brooding but only if the person doing the brooding is hung up on something completely absurd like a cone or a whale. I only like twists that are prefaced by the words ‘and that was when,’ and happen in the middle of an otherwise unassuming paragraph. As to genre, I’ve decided that having a favourite genre of book is a bit like having a favourite colour of painting. I like to finish a book feeling like I know less about the world than I did when I started it. Novelists who claim some swarthy insight into the thing they are talking about, who cap their paragraphs with pithy insights into human nature or, worse, advice for the reader on how they should live their life – that stuff pisses me off. They ought to be journalists at best or self-help writers at worst, or else (if they really believe their own bullshit) they should set up as fortune tellers and prey upon the gullible.

I like my sound and fury to signify nothing, not something portentous about whatever is going to happen three chapters from now. That’s one of the reasons that I was let down by American Gods, the latest in a line of Neil Gaiman novels I’ve been let down by. To perform my due obeisance: Sandman remains my favourite comic of all time – it pushes my buttons right down there, you know, right in the wazoo. Good Omens is a wonderful book but we’ll never really know who to credit for that (sorry, that’s unfair, I know). Coraline I remember fondly because I read it in a recovery ward after a car crash and in that doped-up painkiller amnesiac child-brain of mine I enjoyed it a lot. I nursed a crush on Coraline herself for years, and of all fictional characters she is probably the one who I have spent the most time hoping to bump into in reality. I like Neil Gaiman, really I do, and so I apologise for the rest of this article. I really didn’t like American Gods.

Well, I mean. I would have loved it when I was a younger man. It’s a fun book. It had some trace amount of that ludic-magic gets-you-in-the-wazoo thing. There was a hint of that in there, the powerful inarticulable thing, and that’s precious enough. So what didn’t I like? Well.

The blurb of this book calls it ‘a journey into the heart of America’, some voyage through the country and through its myth. It has something to say about America’s aggregate identity, or lack thereof. It’s full of place-names, diners, small towns, tourist attractions. The sort of stuff that Sandman did beautifully. But for all that, I got very little sense of place. The interiors of small-town America are sparsely drawn. The exteriors are all swaddled in this kind of ‘you couldn’t tell if the mountains were small and nearby or very large and very far away’ stuff which is all very full of its own cleverness but does little to stimulate the imagination. What this book needed was more clutter. I think it could have stood to be longer (I hear the clicking sound of Gaiman’s editing staff shaking their heads at me, very slowly) and more vivid. I could have stomached that. I would have liked more descriptions of things on shelves, and front covers of magazines, and billboards. Oh, there was a certain amount of all that, but when a rooms interior was described it was only to point out how many stuffed alligators there were on the walls. This was a story about the lapse of the lifestyles of gods into mundanity, but for that there was very little of the quotidian. There was never a scene where Shadow made himself a cup of coffee. Whenever someone ate a meal, it was the oddness of that meal that was foregrounded (Oh, look, Wednesday is eating lots of meat again. I wonder what’s up with that. Oh, yeah, he’s a god, that must be why) and given that this book seemed to want to be about the point at which the myths of the past and the realities of everyday American life collided, I think it could have done with a lot more of the latter. So I don’t quite think the book delivered on its promise. I know that’s very Victorian thing to say. Sorry.

American Gods