Archive for May, 2012

It Was Never About the Zombies: DayZ

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The creator has called it a “mature Minecraft”. He’s also stated that he’s aiming for “an authentic experience” rather than realism. He’s called it an “anti-game”.

We’re going to see more games like DayZ. There’s been a lot of talk about innovation over the years, and the current indie scene has really proven that there are a lot of unexplored ideas. We’re starting to see critical mass build to support even multiplayer experiments, like Realm of the Mad God. DayZ can be taken as yet another example of this phenomenon, though its roots are quite different, coming out of the hardcore sim experience.

As I understand it, in the past month DayZ has gone from 500 players to 70,000. And, since it’s a mod, it’s sent Arma 2 to the top of the sales charts across the board. the servers are not quite up to the challenge yet, especially when night falls on part of the planet and players flock to the nearest daylight servers: the game’s real-time clock is synced to the server location by default, so if you want to play in sunshine you’ll have to find a server that’s in the right timezone. (Some servers are time-shifted, but by design they all keep the 24-hour clock).

As a feature in DayZ, this is pretty much par for the course. The latest update added temperature to the list of survival horrors the players need to keep track of. Get caught at night in the rain with no matches and the zombies will be the least of your concerns. This is approaching Dwarf Fortress level of intensity (though not the fractal detail, yet).

Of course, even in sunshine the zombies aren’t the worst things lurking on the servers. The other players are the real monsters of this apocalypse. Killing another player subtracts from a player’s humanity score, but the latest patch removed the only visible sign of this loss of humanity, causing the servers to descend into shoot-on-sight paranoia.

There are two reasons this experience is so powerful: permadeath and persistent characters. This is the first-person-shooter roguelike MMO success that we never expected. Spawning into the world, each player arrives on the beach with a new, minimally equipped character and turned loose to try and survive. Characters tend to have a definite arc as they gather equipment and become more capable, only to be inevitably brought down. All progress is lost when the character dies: only the player’s humanity score persists.

But the other important feature is that during their brief lives, these mayflies are the same on every server running the game. Each server essentially acts as a shard in a world of persistent characters. This one change sets it apart from the majority of shooters and the majority of MMOs.

So, we’re going to see more things like DayZ. Not just more persistent roguelike survival shooters (though those would be nice too) but we’re going to see more crazy ideas that would never get approved for funding or make a Kickstarter, but nevertheless find their niche and become insanely popular and impossible to ignore.

The Garden of Forking Paths: Why Comprehending Games As Systems Is Important

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In Borges’s The Garden of Forking Paths, a book is described: a an infinite book, a book that is a labyrinth. Instead of portraying one timeline of choices and consequences, the writer has simultaneously created all possible alternatives. And sometimes the alternatives converge—the same event may have startling different antecedents, and thus startlingly different meanings:

“With slow precision, he read two versions of the same epic chapter. In the first, an army marches into battle over a desolate mountain pass. The bleak and somber aspect of the rocky landscape made the soldiers feel that life itself was of little value, and so they won the battle easily. In the second, the same army passes through a palace where a banquet is in progress. The splendor of the east remained a memory throughout the glorious battle, and so victory followed.”

So, too, with games. Even a very linear game has many possible paths between the fixed points, events that happen to one player and playthrough and do not happen to another. In a game designed to have choices a the macro level, the possible paths approach infinity.

Borges mentions two men meeting in a garden, with two different results: “…in one of the possible paths you are my enemy, in another, my friend.” This exact situation has been encoded in many games, where the non-player characters the player meets have no way of knowing at the time of compilation if this time the player will be their friend or their foe. The designer must prepare for every possibility, because the meta-narrative the characters exist within needs to contain every probable scenario and configuration.

Now, it’s obviously impossible to write or design these scenarios by hand, adjusting the story to the player’s every possible move, without having the designer in the game loop itself: Dungeon Masters in roleplaying games, and the Storyteller in Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death take this route. This is possibly as close as you can get to writing as a performance art.

But what about every other game, the ones that can’t have a live human writing the outcome of every situation? Either the designer must account for every possible outcome, or the designer must create a system that generates the outcomes from the player’s input. In practice, these two solutions overlap: it’s impossible to write everything, and even if it was, there must still be a way to choose between the possible alternatives.

So a game has a system, a process for taking an input and turning it into an output. And the process can sometimes take two radically different stories and generate the same event, because they were close enough on the dimension being measured to result in the same output. Therefore, games cannot be understood apart from the processes that drive them. Two games or two playthroughs of a part of one game, may have the same visual appearance, the same plot, the same structure, the same fabula and syuzhet—and yet have occurred through entirely different means and have completely separate antecedents. In the same way that the Kuleshov effect can give cuts in a film startling different meaning, the underlying processes can give two games that are visually identical entirely different meanings, meanings invisible to the eye but made distinct through the underlying mechanics.

To understand a game requires an understanding of the systems and processes that make up the game. This is complicated in video games by the game usually existing as a black box, the inner workings hidden and only the input and outcome exposed. The mechanical processes of board games makes them more open, and easier to analyze from an outside perspective, but in both cases the importance of the process in the meaning of game is difficult to underestimate…and can be completely invisible from a purely visual or literary analysis.