Gaming properties are frequently getting revised and reinvented. For those of us old enough to remember the 1st Edition of Dungeons and Dragons and its cludgy rules or the original Metal Gear and just how freakishly difficult that game was, we’ve seen versions of our favorite games, both tabletop, pen and paper, and electronic, come and go. There have been ups and downs, granted, and some old editions so weighted down with nostalgia we have difficulty escaping them (2nd Edition AD&D, anyone?), but no matter what we think of it, whatever version of a game we’re playing now will, eventually, be replaced.
Recently, one of my favorite games – Warhammer 40,000 – entered its 6th Edition. Games Workshop, the publisher, has taken to revising its core rule system every five years, give or take. I started in 2nd Edition, which was an incredibly detailed game, but so monstrously complex and poorly balanced that I really don’t miss it, despite the nostalgia of playing chaotic battles on my basement floor or in my friend Bruce’s garage. This edition change, likewise, I find to be a fun and interesting shift in the rules. It rebalances things a bit, changes the overall dynamic of the game, and makes a stale game suddenly new and full of excitement. In most cases new editions do this rather well, assuming the development team has been able to identify that central thing that makes the game what it is.
What I find regrettable (though sadly inevitable) is the sheer number of nerds on the internet that throw absolutely gigantic hissy-fits over the idea of their old game being ‘replaced’ with the new one. This doesn’t really happen (to my knowledge) with video games much, but with RPGs and strategy games it happens all the time. Case in point, take this post or others of its like regarding the 5th-6th ed changeover. Wander around Warseer if you want to see some massive bitching.
While on the one hand I understand the displeasure with change – everybody hates change – sometimes I have to wonder at the bitterness here. For one thing, these edition changes usually leave the essential parts of the game in-tact. In 6th Ed Warhammer 40K, you can still amass giant armies of superhuman space marines to crush aliens. In 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, you can still gather together with your friends to slog through dungeons and slay dragons for treasure. Where is the problem? Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from going back and playing an older edition of the rules if you find the change less fun for some reason.
I think, on some level, the problem with these edition changes is that folks get caught up in the minutiae of a game – certain mechanics they are familiar with and certain rules exploits they rely on exploiting to succeed. The idea that now, suddenly, their comfortable little world is overturned and the have to re-learn what they’ve learned (like some reviled n00b!) is shocking and terrifying. In this sense, one can see an edition change for an RPG or strategy game as a tiny reflection of the real world, which also has a tendency, from time to time, to knock us out of our comfortable perch and force us, through hard work and creativity, to find a new one. I daresay, then, that edition changes and the upheaval they bring to the gaming community are good for the emotional development of your average introverted geek. They learn to adapt; they grow up a bit.
If only all of us had hobbies that do the same.
Twenty years ago or so, I was given a copy of the FASA strategy game Succession Wars. It’s basically Axis & Allies, but in the Battletech universe and with a less confusing ruleset. I think. I don’t know for sure because I have never gotten anybody to play it with me. This is not the only game I own that is in this category. I can lump in the FASA games Centurion, Leviathan, and Aerotech. I own a copy of Junta I’ve played twice and a copy of Diplomacy I’ve never actually used (the only games of Diplomacy I play occur via e-mail or online). That list isn’t even counting the RPGs I’ve bought but never actually run (including ones I wrote myself), the multiplayer video games I’ve never actually played with another human being.
I’m not actually complaining, believe it or not. Life is full of more important things than playing games and a great many of them are significantly more fulfilling and enjoyable. It is a point of regret, though, that I never have gotten around to having fun with these things. Other folks have garages full of badminton sets and cross-country skis they never use; I’ve got shelves full of games.
I’m not the only one with such a shelf, either. Many of my friends are significantly more weighed down with tons of boardgames they’ll never actually get around to playing (well, perhaps once), have shelves full of video games they’ll never really play, and have stacks of RPG stuff they’ll never have time to run. Rare is the gamer whose eyes aren’t bigger than his or her free time, particularly now that gamers my age are getting older, have more and more real-world commitments, and many more significant responsibilities to take their time and attention. Gone are the halcyon days of our late teens and early twenties, when we could devote entire 36 hour periods to orgies of nerdery the likes of which would shame Dr. Sheldon Cooper.
Well, what are a group of adult nerds to do about this? Are we to go silently into our middle age and regretfully pack up our Piles of Shame, resigning ourselves to a period our lives where the gaming is infrequent and mediocre? No! We must establish a plan to stake out our game time! We must requisition basements and attics for our use! Others have their ritual trips to the bar and inviolate Sunday sports sessions–why cannot we gamers have our time? So, to that end, my suggestions for how to address this issue:
Be Realistic: You and your friends are adults with families and jobs and responsibilities. You are not going to be able to spend six hours every single Sunday playing boardgames or RPGs and expect everybody to show up all the time. When planning out RPG campaigns or boardgaming sessions, keep this in mind. Those games that take ten hours to play and require massive amounts of time and attention are going to be difficult to schedule.
Be Specific: When you invite your buddies over to game, have a specific game in mind (e.g. “We are going to play Succession Wars”). Don’t just say ‘games’ or you’ll play either the same old stuff as usual or get caught up in everybody having different interests and never actually agreeing on what game to play (and then you wind up playing the same old game everybody can agree on).
Plan In Advance: You can’t really call up your buddies on a Friday night and expect them to be free Saturday afternoon. Plan a week or two in advance or have a fixed schedule that everybody’s aware of (‘the first Friday of every month’ or ‘every other Sunday afternoon’), and that way people are more likely to be able to make it.
Be There: If you say you’re going to go, go. Make it a priority. Yes, it comes in behind work and family, but don’t blow off one social engagement (which is what games are) for another social engagement. Barring rare exceptions, blowing off your gaming buddies to go drinking with your work buddies is pretty insulting on the one hand and takes away from the enjoyment the rest of the gamers will derive from the game on the other. Blowing people off is especially rude in the case of RPGs, where, in most cases, your presence is required to play your character and the lack of your character can derail whole adventures.
Keep Your Mate in the Loop: For those of you who are married or in long-term relationships, make certain you let your girlfriend/boyfriend or whatever know when you are gaming and where and so on. Let them know that this is important to you and your friends (even if they think it’s stupid themselves), and you’d really like to make it. Provided your spouse is a decent person who values your wishes, doing this kind of thing will prevent unfortunate double-bookings that prevent you from Being There. Also make clear that he/she has the ability to override gaming time if something obviously more important comes up (this includes things like illness, sudden familial obligations, etc., etc.). I could go on, but I’ll stop here, as we are starting to delve into me giving people relationship advice, and this blog is not the place.
There are other tricks, too–setting up RPG campaigns with rotating character rosters that don’t require the same people to be there every time, for instance, or playing board games that have short play times, and so on. Those five rules, though, ought to make it so that you can enjoy gaming well off into your golden years where, presumably, your time will free up all over again.
Retirement homes of the 2050s are going to be goddamned gamer paradises, I kid you not.
My friend, John Perich, recently drew my attention to this article by Kyle Munkittrick regarding the importance of Mass Effect and its universe on science fiction overall. As a science fiction author, someone deeply involved in the tropes and subgenres of science fiction, and as a lifelong fan of the genre, the article rubs me the wrong way. Mass Effect, while I expect it is a fine game with a well-realized world and excellent storyline (my critique is in no way directed at the game itself), the authors claims seem to indicate to me a certain ignorance of science fiction in general that bugs me.
The author’s central thesis is this:
Mass Effect can and does take ideas to a new plane of existence. Think of the Big Issues in your favorite series. Whether it is realistic science explaining humanoid life throughout the galaxy, or dealing with FTL travel, or the ethical ambiguity of progress, or even the very purpose of the human race in our universe, Mass Effect has got it. By virtue of three simple traits – its medium, its message, and its philosophy – Mass Effect eclipses and engulfs all of science fiction’s greatest universes.
In essence, it is his claim that the Mass Effect world has managed to effectively supplant all preceding science fiction by virtue of its scope and philosophy. This is, of course, complete and utter nonsense. I can say this without ever having played the game, and the reason I can do this is simply because all of the things pointed out by Mr. Munkittrick as being unique and special to the game have not only been done before, but done before multiple times and done very well. Apparently, because the game does all of them at once, this makes it automatically superior to any individual exploration of various aspects of this theme, which, to my mind, is sort of like saying WalMart is automatically superior to any other store since they sell all the things the other stores do collectively. If we are approaching literature in the same way we approach the purchase of bath towels, then I suppose the argument might stand. Literature and, indeed, all art, is not to be so quantitatively assessed. However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go through the claims of the article one-by-one.
In this portion of the article, the author puts forward the idea that Mass Effect, by virtue of being a video game, grants the work a kind of special power. This isn’t altogether untrue, of course–you, in a video game of this nature, have unparalleled control over the path of the storyline, something like those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books of old. This, of course, facilitates a level of engagement that is altogether different from that of a book (it also dilutes authorial control and symbolic and thematic resonance, in my experience, but I haven’t played Mass Effect, so I will give it the benefit of the doubt by saying it is an exception to this phenomenon).
More specifically, however, the author makes three claims. First is this:
The first advantage, setting, involves the portrayal of alien species and alien worlds with ease. Novels require descriptions, comics require painstaking drawings, films and television require either hours of expression deadening makeup or expensive CGI. In a video game, rendering an asari or a hanar requires the same amount of work as a human. Want a cast of thousands? No problem. Need a mob of hundreds of individuals representing fifteen different species rendered inside an colossal ancient space station? No sweat.
So, if I can paraphrase, the argument is that novels use exhausting words to convey meaning, comics have to actually draw things, and film costs lots of money to make this diversity possible. Video games, however, do so effortlessly, somehow, as though the programmers and graphic artists and game designers of these games haven’t spent years and years of work fashioning this environment with every bit as much effort and work as your average novelist, artist, or movie producer.
Furthermore, and more importantly, this is supposed to be somehow novel or unique. Nevermind that it’s been done before, and often. You would have an awfully hard time matching the diversity inherent in Banks’ Culture novels. Furthermore, if you want to talk non-humanoid, bizarre lifeforms and marginalized humanity, there are plenty of choices to pick from, not least of which are the humans of Stephen Baxter’s novels, which at various times in his 4,000,000 year chronology shows humanity being conquered by the Squeem (an aquatic, collectively intelligent species of fish) and the Qax (a species of intelligent marshland–yeah, you heard me) or being completely embarrassed and marginalized by the god-like Xeelee.
The second and third points in the Medium argument circle around the fact that you can control the main character’s choices and even form, which increases engagement in the work. This I won’t bother to contest–it’s true, no doubt. This fact, however, doesn’t make Mass Effect some great contribution to science fiction unless, for some reason, you lack the attention span or capacity to focus on challenging things like ‘books’ to bother seeing what else is out there or what other characters you can identify with. I’m not certain if this argument is the intention of the author, in that it seems to assume that our modern culture can’t or won’t support artistic mediums wherein we cannot control and shape characters ourselves. It strikes me as a cynical and depressing view of modern audiences.
In this segment of the article, Munkittrick presents the central message of Mass Effect as this:
Mass Effect has a simple message: human beings are delusional about their importance in the grand scheme of things.
This is fair enough–a theme often explored by science fiction, and has been hit upon by many, many authors through the years. Munkittrick, however, is primarily focused upon Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar: Galactica, and a brief aside to Starship Troopers (though I’m thinking he means the movie, though, since Heinlein’s message for humanity is rather more in keeping with Mass Effect’s) and Ender’s Game.
This narrowness of scifi allusions tells me, first of all, that the author doesn’t really know enough about science fiction to appropriately assess how important a contribution Mass Effect is likely to make to the genre. Those five works are, essentially, sticking your toe in the shallow-end of what scifi can and has done. I, and I’m sure every scifi writer and fan, are pretty damned tired of having everything we read or have done being compared to Star Wars and Star Trek. Quite simply, the marginalization and racism against humans in Mass Effect for the purpose of, to borrow the author’s phrase, “destabiliz[e] the player’s sense of confidence in his or her own skin,” is an old storyline. For reference, think of The Time Machine (1895), War of the Worlds (1897), Planet of the Apes (1963), Childhood’s End (1953), Battlefield: Earth (1982), Excession (1996), and so on and so forth. Granted, not all of them do *exactly* the same thing, but I think that’s a sufficient crosssection of work to demonstrate how ‘done’ this storyline is. It’s a perfectly good storyline, mind you, but not a landmark one.
The philosophy under discussion is ‘Cosmicism’, which is basically the idea that humans are too insignificant to understand or construct true meaningful existence in the universe. It is, as the author points out, posited by HP Lovecraft. He also claims that Mass Effect is the only work since then to bother with this postmodernist take on human existence. This is, of course, false (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is perhaps the most prominent work to approach the same material, as did Childhood’s End and a lot of Clarke’s other work, as does, on a thematic level, much of the cyberpunk subgenre–or the good stuff, anyway).
In any event, the author proceeds to present a wide variety of storylines that have analogs in other works and all tie this into postmodern thought. This isn’t especially novel, since the other works are also tying it into postmodern thought, because that’s where they got the idea, and HP Lovecraft and the creators of Mass Effect aren’t the only two artists to consider such things. Now, Munkittrick is clearly a big fan of Cosmicism and a devout postmodernist, so the praise he heaps upon Mass Effect I feel, to some extent, is due to his discovery of a video game that simulates his own worldview or, perhaps, allows him to entertain questions he likes entertaining. To state, as he does, that “Mass Effect is the first blockbuster franchise in the postmodern era to directly confront a godless, meaningless universe indifferent to humanity” is simply not true except, perhaps, for the word ‘blockbuster’. I’m not sure what constitutes a ‘blockbuster’, exactly. I would think that Neuromancer does and it, indeed, has such heavy postmodernist themes that it should least qualify as intellectual precedent.
I don’t want to sound as if I’m getting down on Mass Effect–I’m not. What I’m reacting to here is the willingness of some people, who seem poorly read in science fiction, to make assessments that this science fiction property they just discovered is going to change the genre forever. It’s disingenuous to the genre and to the artists and authors who have worked so hard to advance it. I’m not going to get into how I find Cosmicsm an interesting but ultimately pointless endeavor, or point out how all the ‘aliens’ you can ever imagine are really just humans in different clothing or symbols of concepts humans deal with and that, therefore, giving a franchise crap for having ‘too many humans’ is like criticizing language for using too many words–no, that’s just me spouting my own version of the Good News just as this article is doing here. Instead, this is just me saying:
Before handing things awards, do some more research.
Okay, so I had a pretty kickass idea for a video game the other day. Maybe it already exists, and it was one of the various options in the GTA games, but I’d take it a bit further. The idea was first planted in my by this student I had in my freshman composition class a few years ago. He had a confidence and maturity that far exceeded his fellow freshman. I came to find out that he was actually 21 and had spent the years since high school riding in an ambulance as an EMT. Once, he looked at me with a gleam in his eye and said, “my team and I never lost a call.” That is to say, every person their ambulance team picked up lived long enough to see the hospital. Awesome, and good for him.
If you think about it, being in an ambulance has got to be one of the most intense, stressful things anybody can do on a daily basis in the city. You think you’re upset by traffic? What about the guys who have someone bleeding to death in the back seat? I can only imagine the cursing. Well, I can only imagine how I’d curse, at any rate. Think of the video game you could make based on ambulance calls! Each mission would have you on a tight clock, racing across a busy city to get to a victim before he or she died on site, stablizing the person there, and then shooting them to the hospital before they died. I’d have each mission be bracketed by a story–the story of the person who you are running to save. Mission #1: little girl gunned down in gang crossfire at an inner city playground. You fail in the mission? Guess what the mission failed screen is: the girl’s funeral. Crying mom. People in black. Weeping multitudes. Do you want to see that? Hell no you don’t. Drive, dammit. DRIVE.
If you pass the mission, you get to see the little girl living her life. Ramp up the pathos, make you tear at the eyes. Feel like a hero.
This wouldn’t be GTA, though. You’re an ambulance–you can’t run people over, you can’t kill people. Yeah, you can bash up cars and drive on the sidewalk and break the traffic laws, but you’ve got to balance it with public safety. All the missions happen in the same city; you learn the roads, know the traffic patterns, figure out the best routes to the various hospitals. Make a wrong turn, and your patient dies. Get stuck in traffic, figure a way out. Kill somebody? Mission failed. Use the siren.
There’s more to it than driving, though. You’ve got a team in the back working to keep the victim stable. Figure that, with the driving, there will also be prompts for hitting certain buttons in certain orders to get the medics in the back working to top efficiency. The screen will have the victim’s vitals running; the longer you go, the more complicated it is to keep them alive. You’ll need fancy fingers.
Each mission ups the stakes. Start with the little girl shot after school. Move on to a mass casualty event–a bus accident or explosion–happening on a holiday. Icy roads. At night. Have one during city-wide rioting–now you’re not only dodging traffic, but angry mobs. Have another one during an earthquake or tornado. Alien Invasion. Zombie Apocalypse. The possibilities are endless. Keep an open-play option there, too–just drive around and make relatively normal calls. See how many you can get there alive, learn the city in the process.
Upgrade your ambulance. Pimp out its design. Custom sirens, decals, lights, hubcaps. Hire new and better team members–better paramedics, better EMTs, better drivers. Soon you’re driving the A-team of the ambulance world; the team that drives into the alien invasion and saves all the school kids from PS122. Badass. It almost makes me wish I were a game designer.
I’d play that game. I’d like, for once, to play a game where it wasn’t about being vicious or cruel or violent. It’s action, but it’s about saving a life. It’s about everything that makes humanity noble and good.