Posted by: bracehare | August 12, 2017

Confessions of a Dragon

I was standing at the supermarket today trying to decide what to buy for dinner, when I suddenly realized that I was entirely surrounded by death; that this death had simply become entirely innocuous to me because it had been quantified and distributed and packaged in bright saccharine colors.  Now admittedly, this is largely my fault for reading Schopenhauer while mentally ill, but it spontaneously occurred to me that in idealistic terms, if any given animal might as well be the same as any other animal, then we might imagine that every ounce of death in the supermarket belonged to a single creature, whose suffering had simply been distributed throughout space and time in a kind of self-contained infinite loop of misery.  But nobody speaks or reasons in idealistic terms anymore, so the thought then occurred to me that animals are simple; that brains are probably turing machines; and that there are finitely many combinations of experience one can have being factory farmed.  That an animal might be equally afraid or equally in pain at various points in the slaughterhouse experience and somehow get caught in an unbreakable hell by way of metempsychosis.  If two brains are exactly the same they might as well be linked, and in fact, who is to say that they aren’t?

It suddenly became the case that I couldn’t tell whether my anxiousness over these thoughts was my own pain, or empathetic pain for the animals.  And then it occurred to me that I couldn’t do anything about this sea of death, and that I was in fact a part of it, entangled in it, and so I bought a meat covered pizza, reasoning that if at least all of this death was orderly, then I might as well torture myself demonically with pleasant flavor, since order always gives rise to sanity anyway, and if one is forced to be sane in hell as well as in heaven, one might as well take some consolation in the matter.  Sane in what sense?  Well, I’ll return to that.

I’m schizoaffective.  In spite of that I manage to function reasonably well, simply because of my knowledge of time; of how to condition myself in a given series of moments so that I can make it through the next series of moments.  In place of an ever diminishing memory, I substitute a kind of recursive reflex that establishes an unbreakable momentum.  There’s enough in my environment to carry me forward and prime me for whatever comes next, so it doesn’t actually matter that my memory is terrible.

The world has mastered this same trick on a larger scale, only they’ve done it in terms of an environment that is horrifying that they have no will to change.  I don’t suppose I really need to account for every instance of suffering in the world today, but I reflect further on the problem of animal suffering.  In Buddhist Cosmology, it is in the karma of animals to suffer, even though it is bad karma to inflict harm on animals.  But this seems simplistic to me, for if I start with Schopenhauer’s argument, that the animal can better bear the pain than the human, and accept that there is some continuity of consciousness that goes from the animal to the human, then I could say, on behalf of the animal (since the animal cannot say this itself) “I would suffer this much pain in this form to be able to enjoy these benefits in my present form”.  And, if this is honest, the whole thing simply becomes an example of self-improvement, like exercise.  After all, people go to extreme lengths to better themselves, and on the timespan of eternity, one might imagine these lengths to become more and more extreme, depending on the nature of people’s urges.  “But this is hell!” you say, noting Schopenhauer’s commentary on the dangers of strong wills.  Well, not if you wake up from it as a human being.  So I guess it’s all down to how literal we’re being with our stated beliefs.

The horrifying and darkly amusing thing is that it becomes possible to tolerate absolutely anything so long as there is a rhythm and a structure to it.  The most horrifying cacophony of noise imaginable becomes at least somewhat cognizable and hence bearable the moment one can put a time signature on it.  I suppose this is largely the point of the Hindu Yuga cycle.  Again, pimping Schopenhauer, he talks about a man having to walk over hot coals endlessly, and idiotically lusting for a single cool spot.  Well of course this is idiotic.  If one lusts for it they don’t distribute it optimally.  It’s fine and good to say that life is a pendulum between pain and boredom, but once one has said it is a pendulum, shouldn’t one stop speaking of melody and harmony and start speaking of rhythm?  The dance game community has gone from making stepcharts that look like this:

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to this

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Which is, if you can’t recognize it, a hellish maelstrom of arrows, tolerable only because they don’t immediately repeat.  But because they don’t immediately repeat, precisely for this reason and probably no other, the will to play this game has risen to this point

The time is approaching, if it hasn’t already come (and indeed time is a slippery and fluid thing) when men will be responsible for managing the consciousness of every organism, or for building systems that will do such managing.  What sins will they face once they understand the true nature of consciousness?  And how will they respond to such sins?  Already we have a secularized notion of hell in the concept of Roko’s Basilisk.  The world’s dominant religion is Christianity, and it has unsubtly influenced the world away from notions of timing and towards notions of some definite endpoint to history, in which everything bad goes down into eternal fire, everything good to heaven, and then I guess they both just stay there, eternally frozen in some sort of stasis, perceiving infinity in that perfect moment but never going anywhere or doing anything ever again.  I had a vision to this effect after an encounter with the Archangel Michael in Belgium.  I think it was probably penalty for being a general shitheel, but it’s hard to know.

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Posted by: bracehare | September 8, 2016

Brief Clarification on Metal Gear Rising

I originally excoriated Metal Gear Rising for its ridiculousness.  I have subsequently played the game and seen that it has done a better job with the franchise than MGS4 or MGS5.  The tongue in cheek qualities did not prove to be anathema to broader themes, and the game is quite good.  That is all.  Dismissed.

Posted by: bracehare | September 25, 2014

Snowpiercer: Environmentalism as fascism

I recently had the good fortune to be able watch the movie Snowpiercer, which would otherwise have completely flown under my radar due to the bizarre particulars of its distribution.  A sleeper hit summer blockbuster, it hits a lot of notes that you don’t normally hear together, functioning as a sort of surrealist avant-garde action movie.  It’s received a lot of critical praise for its expert direction, well-matched score, solid acting performances, and political themes.  That last bit in particular shouldn’t be terribly surprising.  On its surface, Snowpiercer is thematically equivalent to Bioshock, taking the piss out of capitalism by creating a symbolic equivalent which is absurd to the point of unacceptability, trying to get the viewer to extrapolate this unacceptability to capitalism as it exists in real life.  This interpretation isn’t entirely devoid of merit, but it’s a very superficial reading of the film which misses some important things.

In the movie, the world becomes a frozen wasteland after an attempt to reverse global warming is a bit too efficacious for anyone’s good.  Film critics have taken this to be, more or less unanimously, an arbitrary setup.  This is a major misreading.  Remember that, at the start of the film, CW-7 (the revolutionary cooling substance that leads to the whole mess) is mentioned as having critics.  These critics are named as environmental groups and a number of developing countries, respectively.  Is this really a throwaway line?  Keep in mind, it’s already a given that this is a movie with themes about wealth disparity.  The mention of developing countries as an opponent to the technology would seem to align it with these themes.  If this is truly a throwaway line, then its placement in the movie is sloppy because it constitutes a red herring.  On the contrary, this line is quite important, but understanding why requires a knowledge of international politics.

Within the United States, the debate on global warming mostly seems to be an issue of the scientific community trying to fight against politicians who (whatever the driving motive), represent the interests of big oil and coal, and conservatives who are almost pathologically wary of any state intervention to the point that the conclusion of its unacceptability precedes any reasoning about the invalidity of environmental data.  Globally, however, climate change has a different political fulcrum: who should foot the bill.  The big divide is whether economically developed countries or developing countries should bear the burden of reducing carbon emissions.  Those in developed countries argue that the developing world are the ones who are causing the greatest acceleration of global warming, and so they should bear the bigger responsibility for reducing carbon emissions.  Developing countries, naturally, have the same concerns about damage to industry that we have in the United States, albeit in the context of raising their residents out of conditions of privation rather than simply maintaining an already acquired affluence.  There is a lot of back and forth for many reasons on the subject, but as that link shows, most people in EDCs don’t feel any responsibility for global warming.  Realistically, one would expect that if the problem could be shifted to LDCs, even the staunchest Republican would emphatically climb aboard.

This shirking of responsibility is rooted in a number of fallacies that pass for capitalist thought, in the sort of psuedocapitalist fashion that essentially defines the west (although I suppose a leftist would simply call this “capitalism”, and that’s understandable, and not really worth nitpicking over here).  The west were already polluting this much, for instance.  We got here first.  Taking action against global warming would also almost certainly have a greater absolute effect on the developed world (though a much smaller relative effect), simply because we have more accumulated wealth to lose and a bigger annual GDP to diminish.  Our financial and industrial systems are finely tuned and more or less fully developed.  The political power that is associated with this is not something people are interested in giving up either (crucially, remember that the Kyoto protocol, which pertained to developed countries, was not ratified by the United States)  .  So, tampering with any of this; the engine of capitalism in its present form; is unacceptable.  Of course, in the context of externalities, there can be nothing like property rights.  One can’t have a right to do something that kills people and destroys the property of others.  The logic that we were doing it first, already far from morally well-developed, is a blatant sophistry in this context; a fundamental misapplication of the concept of ownership; but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

At any rate, this sets the backdrop for Snowpiercer.  The globe has continued to warm, from which we can conclude that neither the developed world nor the developing world have accepted the onus of reducing carbon emissions.  The developing world, naturally, see more economic benefit to continued development than they see harm in global warming.  However, to the finely tuned economies of the developed world, global warming is now a serious problem.  Thus, unilaterally and against the protests of both the developing world and environmental groups (the people concerned with the actual environment, rather than simply the economic impacts of climate change), the economically advantaged nations of the world inject a poorly tested and poorly understood cooling substance into the atmosphere.

Subsequently, we have the entire movie.  An eccentric savant builds a perpetual motion engine powered train, equipped to travel in circles indefinitely, on which the poor can remain poor and the wealthy can remain wealthy, and everyone else can remain in between; provided that the system is carefully managed.  This has been viewed as principally a metaphor about class immobility.  It certainly is this, but it’s about something more specific as well.  The train, with its perfect engine, travels in circles.  This is essentially similar to a consumer capitalist system in which GDP grows steadily and efficiently, but economic activity no longer has any meaning.  It exists for its own sake.  People buy the new iPhone because that is what people in that station of life do, not because it actually has any new features of consequence (in fact, it might even be larger, more fragile, and in general represent a step back).  More crucially, the train, with its massively disparate classes, is a carefully managed ecosystem.  As the film unsubtly informs us, the train is the world.

Snowpiercer is then fundamentally not about class warfare in a generic sense, but about the use of environmentalist narratives by elites to perpetuate class warfare.  The actual environmentalists of the world are all presumably dead.  They died protesting.  Wilfred, meanwhile, as an obvious child of elites himself, absurdly built a self-sufficient train as a microcosm of the world, as it existed at the time of the freeze.  The train exists to preserve the status quo.  Those who run it are shepherds, concurrently, of the environment and the status quo.  This requires the nightmarish dystopia of the train, where the herd of humanity has to be perpetually culled, artificially.  The release of CW-7 into the atmosphere was also undertaken to preserve the status quo.   It was the solution to the dual problems of solving global warming and keeping all the hierarchies of the world static.  To those in charge, it’s both or nothing.

What this movie says, then, is that choosing both leads to unacceptable and nightmarish consequences.  People have expressed a lot of contempt for the metaphor of the train, pointing out how senseless it is.  The senselessness is the point.  They say, “why didn’t they just live in a bunker?”  The text at the beginning of the movie tells us that all life went extinct, and the people on the train are all that’s left.  Of course, at the end of the movie we see a polar bear.  The text lead-in at the beginning of the movie is therefore undermined as the authorial word-of-god it would normally be.  There probably are people in bunkers.  Were those 7 people who froze to death just running off to nowhere in particular?  If the materials exist to insulate against cold on a moving train, why would they not exist for a stationary building?  The point, remember, isn’t that the train is literally the world as it must, necessarily, exist.  It’s that to people like Wilfred and the other people in the front of the train, anything besides the utter, depraved insanity on display in the film is an inconceivable, unacceptable option for the world to be.  This pernicious view trickles down to those in the rear of the train as well.  Only Namgoong Minsu, a man who played a lesser role in building the train, is able to see that the train is an artificial system.  Note that the two principal architects of the train, Wilfred and Gilliam, are both fully invested  (note also the way Gilliam’s selflessness and capacity for sacrifice are exploited and turned to evil purposes.  It is not a good heart that saves anyone, it’s the sense and the conviction to say no to something senseless and live with the consequences.)

Ultimately then, when the decision is made to blow the entrance door, and (as other reviews have astutely pointed out) pursue a third way, this is principally an argument for something akin to anarcho-primitivism.  Remember as well that the film is peppered with references to tribal life.  Yona’s mother is Inuit.  The skills which will be used to survive in this brave new world are traditional hunter-gatherer skills, which Namgoong has attempted to instill in her.  The overarching theme of the movie isn’t about left vs right, or labor vs capital then, and attempting to forcibly, singularly impose this view on the film is naive and leads to some real lapses of critical analysis.  This film is about the appropriation of environmental narratives by elites to serve their own ends, and the fundamental falsity and danger of this sort of totalitarianism.  As seen with Gilliam, it can be spun as altruism, and as seen with Wilfred, it can also be spun as the kind of twisted faux-meritocracy that is a ubiquitous aspect of the ideologies of the privileged in the world today (with ever increasing enthusiasm).

The point is this, though: a train traveling in circles where half the people engage in pointless profligacy and the other half languish in their own filth, packed on top of each other, eating cockroaches, is how a totalitarian would solve the problem of an ecosystem in need of careful balance.  It is a totalitarian’s approach to environmentalism.  Contrast with two children wandering a largely barren world, who may or may not be immediately eaten by a polar bear.  Is this better than the train?  Well, let’s put it this way: if they do get eaten by that polar bear, that will probably be the least terrible thing to happen to them that day.  Either way, for however long they remain alive after they exit the train, they are free, uniquely and finally, and the film here requires no political slant, no heavy interpretation, in order to make this point.

Posted by: bracehare | December 28, 2013

State of the Union 2013

I’ve had a lot going through my head lately.  A jumble of thoughts, intense, not entirely organized, with a fevered pitch.  I’ve refrained from writing because I’ve been concerned I would come across as a lunatic, since all of this has the character of madness, but then I suppose I’m sufficiently incriminated already in that respect, and I still feel that these ideas, however undeveloped, need to be expressed in some way.

Lately I have been reading: The Rebel by Camus, Living in Truth by Vaclav Havel, The Gulag Archipelego by Solzenitsyn, and a revisitation of older reads such as the essays of Karl Popper.  A great deal has been put into context for me about my country’s history, about world history, and about “human nature” so-to-speak.  Alarms have been going off in my head.  I have had long stretches of unfocused trepidation and short bursts of lucid terror.  The problem is never so much one of making sure your model is valid, but of making sure your premises are realistic.  Maybe mine aren’t.  Let me start with them, so that my reasoning can be vetted.

What is it that made the American revolution successful and the French revolution a disaster?  Both were based on enlightenment values.  Whereas the United States became a stable and successful country immediately after though, France plunged into a fascistic nightmare from which only their own Caesar could rescue them.  Entire classes of people were murdered, factions of the same political platform turned violent against one another, and the more the state attempted to be a rational, legalistic, populist entity, the more blood was spilt, and the more absurdly.  It troubles me greatly that we cannot account for this country’s historical difference from its sibling.  Part of me suspects that the Jacobin disease lies dormant in our body politic, masked up until now by our unique history, waiting only for the right set of conditions to manifest.  Part of me supposes that France was lucky; they got it out of their system young, at a time when Caesars could still cross their own personal Rubicons, before the atom bomb fixed politics in stone.

The sinking feeling I have had is that the only reason the United States got away with our revolution whereas France did not is because we had an escape valve.  We had the west.  We also had designated acceptable targets extrinsic to our social systems; whereas France had the nobility, the United States had our natives and our slaves.  One set of targets are plainly less socially disruptive to kill.  When Andrew Jackson ignored the constitution and the supreme court to send the civilized tribes to Oklahoma; the whole history of our treatment of this country’s natives in fact; these were a missed symptom.  When the desperately poor of this country went west en masse simply to seek a life outside a ghetto, and the robber barons maintained their reign unquestioned, that was a missed symptom.  When the Mormon religion was persecuted in this land of religious freedom and they were forced to seek their promised land in Utah, that was a missed symptom.  And so on, and etc.  There was a prophylaxis by which every element volatile to the new establishment of wealth and political power in the United States was moved west, by choice or by force.  In more established countries such a thing would have been impossible, and what was really exodus under the guise of manifest destiny would have been a short but extreme period of violence instead.  Our national identity would have consolidated under such pressures.  Instead, a dangerous love of order, even above mercy or truth, was distilled by the osmosis of its would-be targets into areas of greater freedom.

So, this country is uniquely polarized by geography.  Lately due to the recession it has had to weather a resurgence of poverty, one of the traditional elements of a social powderkeg.  We have a law and order fetishism that would make the Jacobins blush, embodied in our prison industrial complex which is fed mostly by non-violent drug offenders.  Our country is also uniquely educated; our system produces technicians, intensely capable of plying modern trades (finance, software, the engineering professions, law…) but lacking philosophical, historical, or political education, critical thinking skills, or even the inclination towards such things; white collar professionals proudly boast that they are free from “useless knowledge”, that they are above “meaningless language”.  Are they really?  No, of course not.  There is a vacuum in these people’s worldviews, and by consciously turning up their nose at academic knowledge they ensure it gets filled with junk.  This is why so many American professionals are drawn to political extremism even of ostensibly defunct or plainly anti-realistic kinds.  Popper warned about this, as did Havel, and many others.  European intellectuals almost as a class predicted this would happen, and long before it came to pass.  The United States is a country with rich and diverse traditions, pragmatic people, and a dearth of its own philosophical culture which it resolves through foreign import and intellectual thrift; we make a few ideas go a long way.  Well, so was Russia.

It’s hard to explain precisely what’s terrifying me about this country today, because there are only ingredients, which have yet to consolidate into anything definite.  I can sense them trying to do so.  By the time they do, I think it will be too late for me; fringe elements are always the first to go, sometimes so much long before the problem is apparent that the two things are not even recognized as related by history.  Solzenitsyn states that the mass arrests of 1937 and 1938 are widely regarded as the beginning of Stalin’s purges, even though some 15 million peasants were disappeared almost a decade before then; easy targets.  

“This wave poured forth, sank down into the permafrost, and even our most active minds recall hardly a thing about it. It is as if it had not even scarred the Russian conscience,” says Solzenitysn

Prior to fascism in earnest, a rising fascist state “takes out the trash” so to speak.  It does not cause alarm for the same reason one can mass deport the Cherokee, violate one’s own law in doing so, and remain a populist figure; for the same reason slavery didn’t stand out as a contradiction to the constitution.  What use is prescience anyway?  If one reacts too soon to an indefinite threat, one only helps to consolidate it and give it shape, give it excuse.  John Brown did this, and only by luck did the chips fall favorably.  I don’t think I have the reflexes to react at the exact right moment, given such a small window of opportunity.  Nor do I think I have the wit or the good fortune to set things in motion in a way that leaves things better off than where they began.  So, I am just sort of left to watch as the circumstances of my future death develop.  Que sera sera.

Some things seem apparent about the future.  Contrary to the insistence of leftist revisionists, no fascist state has ever really been plutocratic.  Our country seems poised to become the first.  The conjunction of law and order fetishism, the conflation of wealth and character, the just world fallacy, and this country’s worship of financial success seem to be perfectly suited to enable this.  What is most ironic about this country’s love of wealth is that it stems from a romanticism that was born in the west, a worship of everymen who built fortunes and powerful families largely independently of established infrastructure.  Our country is today not nearly as ossified as some would think in terms of wealth, but it is nonetheless telling that corrupt corporate executives today fancy themselves as James J. Hills, even as they steal from the taxpayer in the form of subsidies and bailouts; that Wall Street traders, who use automated software to game the market, consider themselves Red Adairs; and that all of these people, even as they plunge the country to its death through insider trading, complex gambits with derivatives, incompetent management, short-sighted policy, general moral hazard, and the looting of the public treasury, quote Ayn Rand readily and without the slightest hint of irony.  There is a class of people in this country who have stolen this country’s authentic ideology and convinced others it rightfully belongs to them, simply because they thought it sounded nice and that is the sort of thing they have done professionally for hundreds of years now.

Religion is a scary thing sometimes.  I was tortured by the religious in this country, and that was over a decade ago, when they had little doubt about running the place.  Nobody made record of this.  I have to wonder how the religious are going to respond long-term to the antagonism of, for instance, moneyed homosexuals.  Two men in Colorado went to court and got the state to say to a religious man, “bake them a wedding cake or lose your livelihood”.  This seems to have no function besides antagonism.  If I’m harassed in a store the day after the verdict, is this related?  Has the idea been implanted that queer people are an imposition on the freedom of running a business?  That’s the trouble with being transsexual, is visibility.  It seems like gay men cause problems and then slip into the shadows.  My visibility attracts negative attention, which is then perceived as antagonism, and responded to in kind.  Gay people say, “look, they only hate those people.”  My cause is taken up by extreme leftists, who love all things lowly, including the brazenly criminal.  The right says “look, only communists and other trash will associate with these people, and you will know them by the company they keep.”  Then Log Cabin Republicans say, “Why do you have to associate LGBT issues with anti-american ideologies?”  Queer politics in a nutshell, but this is a digression.

Love of money for its own sake is a scary thing.  People in this country no longer care where money comes from, or make any distinction as to this.  Every rich person is entitled to the same form of speech, and how it rolls off their tongues, self-made men and vicious criminals alike.  Consumption is our only culture.  There is no pride left in work, only pride in how much one makes at work, which is displayed through conspicuous consumption.  People get angry at welfare recipients having iPhones, dressing nicely, owning cars and so forth because it disrupts our one real culture.  Poor people should not have nice things, because otherwise you can’t tell that they’re poor people.  Consumption belies hierarchy, and so consumption needs to occur in clear, socially stratified iterations; if it fails to do so, then laws must be passed to make it so.  Welfare fraud laws cost more than they save, for instance, but remain in high demand; their function is just to police the culture of consumption.  Even drug laws can be understood in this way.  When a rich man rolls up a benjamin and snorts a line of coke, does he want to feel he has something in common with a person living in a crackhouse?  Of course not.  So we raid the crackhouse.  Of course, drugs are an expensive habit.  The poor pay the difference in prison time while the rich enjoy the unstated privilege of their wealth.

Lack of meaningful education and lack of engagement with civic ideas are scary things.  People have learned to keep their heads down.  There are easy labels to dismiss everything now.  You do not need a breadth of knowledge to make money, not even very large amounts.  Money in this country is legal protection, culture, status, personhood, life.  Keep your head down and make money.  If you worry too much you will make others uncomfortable.  Social networking is more important than skill these days.  Be a social person; do not make others uncomfortable; and survive.  Resent those who refuse, regardless of the form or motives of their refusal, even if it’s unintentional for that matter, for their actions are an indictment of you, and they have no right to you indict you.  You are more valuable.  You have money.

The love of order and the ever more rigid taxonomy of human beings is a scary thing.  This country really loves putting people in prison, to the extent there’s a de facto prison of economic and social circumstance waiting for people even if they ever leave the official big house.  Honestly, sometimes even if they never go in the first place, provided it seems like they should be there.  Do we believe in free will?  Not as much as we believe in winners and losers.  A single action draws eternal consequences.  It is not like this everywhere, but second chance is becoming a dirty phrase here.  It sounds like a guilty person sniveling.  In order to believe that our institutions are meritocratic, we have rationalized ludicrous results.  Weigh your heart upon the scales of justice; if it weighs more than a feather, you will be consumed.  Our schools today are modeled after our prisons.  Is it any wonder we have such a docile populace?

How does all of this fit together?  I don’t know.  I’m not even sure how much I’m misreading.  If I’m not, I give my country a prognosis of 15-30 years, tops.

Posted by: bracehare | December 15, 2011

Metal Gear Rising: Thoughts and Impressions

 

That feeling you just felt was the voice of a million fanboys crying out in terror.  This video at the moment stands at a ratio of roughly 3:2 for likes vs dislikes, and IGN (while admittedly a joke of a website) even ran an article saying that Rising will destroy the series.  Which is of course absurd, as it implies that MGS4 didn’t already do the job.  That is what makes all of these fanboy outbursts truly precious.  I have had ambivalent feelings about Metal Gear Solid 3 for some time now, but I’m beginning to realize that it was both a swan-song and an ultimatum.  Both MGS1 and MGS2 had important messages about personal agency and meaning, established against the backdrop of both individual lives and social phenomenon, which were used to prove the existence of freedom by suggesting the possibility of its antithesis.  However, in MGS3, the death of The Boss; both narratively and ludologically; signals the death of the series.  The player is forced to kill her by the mission, by the requirements of the game, and even by the mechanics of the game if they prove too stubborn to follow through.  The essential message here is “Fuck it.  Forget all that stuff about personal freedom.  You’re a puppet and that’s all you ever will be”.  It comes at the end of a game which is much less bleak in general.  Without being actualized, the insult can’t really be extended to the point it subsumes the series.  Of course, then Guns of the Patriots comes along and you literally play as a puppet.  The ending of MGS3 was a threat, and then MGS4 was its execution.  With extremely rare exception, this flew over the heads of the so-called fanbase and the gaming press alike, who lauded the game with perfect scores all around.

The joke went ignored because of a fundamental flaw in the way the average person “reads” games.  The story of a game rarely has primary significance to a player.  Instead, it’s an aesthetic; an embellishment which exists only to enable and contextualize the actions of the player.  This is why the average player doesn’t care whether they’re playing as a puppet or a person.  They just need an excuse to get to the next goal, and they don’t dwell overly long on the implications.  This of course explains the commonality of the “puppet” trope.  It is easy to write consistently, and in a way which works with the aesthetic of a game.  The result is a lot of subtly dehumanized characters, from Gordon Freeman to the Bioshock protagonist to the entire crew of Mother 3.  The MGS series has suffered from its need to be commercially appealing.  Instead of remaining an effective vehicle for important messages, it’s been forced to acquiesce to complaints from 30 year old manchildren that “Raiden is too girly”, that the gameplay isn’t enough like Call of Duty or Battlefield, that the plot is too complicated, etc.  MGS4 was the death of authorial control.  It was a finely tuned modern shooter with minor stealth elements which turned Raiden into an excuse for stylish cutscenes and which reduced the plot to “The patriots control everything and everything is nanomachines”.  Sure, the cutscenes were twice as long, and equally portentous (and pretentious) despite now lacking substance of any kind, but that was just part of the joke.  It was too subtle though.  This is why I love Rising.  This is why Rising exists.  It is the progeny of the same sense of humor as MGS4, but dumbed down for the target audience.

We are living in the shadow of MGS4.  Metal Gear Rising takes all the stupidity of the previous game and presents it without the trappings.  MGS4 was an enabler, like the friend who encourages you to drink well past the point of cogency at any event where alcohol is present.  Rising is more like the friend who overdoses after injecting a speedball and leaves you realizing how hollow, fleeting and superficial your lifestyle is.  The reaction of the fanbase to Rising is a colossal case of missing the point.  It’s a few hundred thousand people saying “Substance abuse is bad, and some people would drag me down into it, and I don’t want any bad influences in my life.  Only alcoholics”.  I say fuck that.  I personally love the hell out of excess when it serves as a form of honesty, and that’s exactly what Metal Gear Rising is shaping up to be.  It eschews hypocrisy in favor of toxicity.  It’s not the game the fanbase needs, but it’s the one it deserves.  Of course nobody gets it.  They don’t understand the way in which it’s a reaction to its predecessor; the way in which it’s effectively required by it, in fact.  The series was beloved by its nominal fanbase not for its content but for appearances.  In MGS4, the content was removed without anyone noticing.  Now with rising, the aesthetics are changed slightly, and suddenly everyone is going “where did my content go!???”  This would be hilarious, in much the same capacity as tricking a dog into chasing a non-existent ball, if not for the fact that it corresponds to the death of a series.  Hell, honestly it’s funny anyway.

– Jessica Evans

Posted by: bracehare | December 8, 2011

Game Design class: A retrospective

This entry marks the final assignment for the class for which this blog was created, CSC 126, also known as Game Design and Development.  Whether or not I will continue to write in this blog I do not know.  I have been a fan of blogging since sometime in 2008, when a strange combination of excess testosterone, existential despair, and my manic depressive alcoholic friend’s exuberant fascination with “New Games Journalism” all combined to draw me into writing for my first blog; a blog which in retrospect may end up compelling potential employers to file my resume under “permanently deferred”, but such are the challenges of my life at any rate, so on balance little is lost.  I digress.  This blog may well lose focus and devolve into an eclectic mix of cheeseburger reviews, attack articles against random internet backwaters, and existential analyses of high school required reading material as previous blogs under my authorship have done, but at the very least with this article I can say that for an entire semester I managed to maintain a consistent and semi-professional focus on one well-defined subject, and to somehow avoid writing in a manner compelled entirely (and obviously) by sublimated energies.

I feel like I had a leg up on this class going into it, as I had already had exposure to a wide range of theory on the subject of video games.  For this I can thank the aforementioned scoundrel mentioned above (the one other than me, in this case), as well as the fact of my community involvement in competitive dancing games, which served to draw me into a number of different related cultures.  In particular I must thank SelectButton.net, who have offered a consistent sounding board, exposed me to a range of thoughts so wide they frequently exceed the boundaries of coherence, and tolerated my eccentricities without banning me (an impressive feat, statistically speaking, even if it was in this case largely enabled by apathy bordering on nihilism).  I did learn a lot in the course of Game Design class, however.  I learned much about story structure, for instance, which I feel was substantive and entirely novel.  In general I enjoyed the formal theory which I was exposed to, including the issue of how game programming actually handles AI behavior and game behavior behind the scenes.  I think this type of exploration of game design is more analytical in nature, and is therefore something unlikely to be found in the internet game community, even with those Internet New Philosophers of more cultured circles.  The average person with a critical interest in games tends to be coming at them from a literary or artistic background, and in rare cases from a philosophical background, albeit in this case their approach tends to be the watered down and sterile version of continental philosophy that is currently most in vogue in institutions of higher learning.  I like it when math is involved heavily in a perspective.  Its presence signals to me that a perspective is liable to be novel, rather than something I could find espoused commonly amongst any circle of hobbyists.

The other thing I took out of this class; Game Design is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, or at least something vaguely like what this platitude entails is true.  I may just be spoiled given my familiarity with the college context, but absorbing most of the dialog on the subject was the simplest part of the class for me.  If I have to hear about the ludology vs narratology debate again I think I am going to end up forsaking a lot of games discussion altogether.  It is fast becoming a tired red herring of a false dichotomy in my mind, along the same lines of “republic vs democrat”, in which the terms obfuscate infinitely more than they reveal and prohibit more substantive conversation at the same time.  It is one of those dogma’s seemingly produced by the nature of language itself.  I like game design as a subject, but too much of it is instantly obvious to me as philosophy for me to take any one perspective’s claim to hegemony as valid.  My background again is problematic in this regard.  I was raised by the internet, which is about the modern day equivalent of being raised by wolves.  I am like Epicurus in a sense; I have cultivated my intellect outside the context of academia as much as inside of it, and as a consequence I find the rules of it to be stifling and not worth following.  Maybe I’m rambling here.  I am pretty tired honestly.  The gist of what I am trying to say is that formal contexts are only useful to the extent they produce truly formal theories, and not simply to the extent they attempt to imbue formality into plebian debates.  This is not to say I dislike such debates, simply that I prefer them without pretense.  As such I will be returning to my wilderness, the Internet, for most of my future cogitation on this subject, although I may also elect to buy a book or two since I’ve seen that there can actually be unique knowledge to be gleaned from formal sources.

In short, this class taught me that I can be jaded with liberal arts without throwing the baby out with the bathwater (and make no mistake, Game Design is a liberal arts field enabled by science and technology and not the other way around).  That was probably not even remotely the point of the class, and admitting to this all likely says too much about me, but in retrospect that is the primary moral I took out of it.  I think my pretenses at formality are starting to wear down.  It must be the end of the semester.

– Jessica Evans

Posted by: bracehare | December 2, 2011

Games that hate their players

As I’m sure many who know me are aware, I have a soft spot in my heart for games which… shall we say, put the player outside of their comfort zone. In fact, both of my main projects for my game design class took this form. My first game was intended to emulate, in some sense, the experience of being homeless and searching for work. The game I am currently on is meant to put the player in the role of a fascist thug, fighting a purely one sided battle. Neither of these experiences are intended to be pleasant, although it is also clear they both aim to instill a different form of unpleasantness. However, I am not the first person to ever use a game to communicate in this fashion. Below are a few examples of games which beat me to the punch, along with descriptions of how they managed this.

  • Takeshi no Chousenjou

One of the oldest “troll” games, Takeshi no Chousenjou takes advantage of both the sponsorship and the ideas of Takeshi Kitano.  Made for the Famicon (the Japanese model of the NES), this loveable creation allows players to attack any character, gives them little idea if any about how to move forward through the game, and forces players to complete such eccentric tasks as singing karaoke, quitting their job and getting a divorce, hitting an enemy 20,000 times and, in one instance, not touching the controls for an hour.  It is possible to get a game over on the start menu by selecting the wrong option.  Through it’s deliberate and inflammatory absurdity, this game is a treasured example of what is perhaps the first game to ever use unorthodox mechanics as a means to frustrate the player.

Takeshi’s Adventure

  • Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days

This is a much more recent game, and one which I think has been critically misunderstood by most of its players.  Detested by both the press and gaming public for its imprecise aiming, severely unfocused storyline, unlovable characters and repetitive gameplay, this is a perfect example from the medium of a game which puts players outside of their comfort zone.  It is generally thought that this is unintentional, being a result of poor gameplay design, but I am more inclined to think it is deliberate; perhaps even a send-up of the gaming scene as a whole.  The first person shooter genre is rife with examples of characters who shoot thousands upon thousands of mooks, yet are portrayed as beacons of morality and good.  In the rare cases where morality is called into question, it is very deliberate and theatrical.  You get the sense that the creator took a big highlighter to the part of the game which is supposed to demonstrate moral ambiguity.  Kane and Lynch 2 gives what I believe to be a much more plausible picture of protagonists inclined to and capable of serial murder and mayhem in the streets.  Kane and Lynch are completely repugnant and inelegant in everything they do. It makes the games nausea inducing to play, but in a way it’s refreshing.  It’s a step back from the popular paradox of the noble slaughterer found in mainstream games, and in this capacity it also brutally and relentlessly mocks the player for wanting to play it.

The two men you will be spending your time with if you play this 

 

  • I wanna be the guy!

Unlike the previous two games in terms of its scope and origin, this popular homebrew title nonetheless gets a spot on the list for taking the platforming genre and turning the difficulty up to the point that the entire game becomes about simple rote memorization.  The slogan of the game is “The game where everything kills you.  Even the moon”.  This should be enough to tell you what you’re dealing with here.  The overwhelming number of obstacles in this game quite simply cannot be dealt with if you haven’t seen them before.  There are also quite a few obstacles between any two given save points, meaning the game mandates a fiercely upsetting iterative process in which the player learns the location of every trap by dying to them, usually multiple times, and must internalize this knowledge and then ultimately play flawlessly in the context of it to progress.  It may owe a bit of its difficulty to romhacks such as “Brutal Mario”, but the difference is that such games generally have a traditional sort of difficulty to them.  I wanna be the guy sets up expectations and then breaks them.  There are very few if any consistent patterns.  In one of the very earliest sections of the game, the player can discover that cherries which fall from trees will kill them.  Then, if they elect to jump over these cherries, they can quickly discover that some of them are scripted to fall up.  At one point, true to the tagline, the moon does indeed fall out of the sky before chasing you through a deadly obstacle course like a sentient version of the boulder from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  One section dumps you into the bottom of the chamber of a tetris game, and forces you to navigate your way out over the falling blocks.  I wanna be the guy is pure sadism, and it’s gorgeous for it.

I do not wanna be the guy ;_;

  • Desert Bus

This particular specimen, produced by the magicians Penn and Teller, was incontestably created for the sole purpose of trolling.  It is a game about tedium.  You drive a bus through a monotonous, never changing desert landscape, from Tuscon to Vegas, in real time.  At the top speed of 45 miles per hour.  You get 1 point for each successful completion of a journey, and each journey takes 8 hours.  In addition to this, the bus has a steering problem; it veers right slightly.  This prevents the player from simply holding down the accelerator, as doing so would cause them to drive off the road.  For some reason, and who even knows why, there are people who have set out to attain high scores at this game.  If you thought World of Warcraft made a depressing statement about human nature, keep that in mind (although to be fair, at least Desert Bus at least doesn’t make the player pay for the privilege of grinding).

With the skillset needed to play this game to completion, you could drive an actual bus and make a living

Posted by: bracehare | November 16, 2011

Self-handicapping in gaming communities

One of the more interesting phenomenon in gaming (or perhaps it’s simply depressive, depending on your perspective) is the way that virtually all gaming communities have developed certain sets of fandom established rules defining alternate ways to play through a game, particularly when these rules constitute a severe handicap or otherwise provide heavy limitations for the player. For shoot-em-ups, or shmups, the best example tends to be Single Credit Clears, or SCCs. Borrowing the name from their arcade lineage, when a single play would cost a single credit, they are exactly what they sound like; they require the player to complete the game without having to continue, or “buy back into” the game (the process is sometimes literal and sometimes figurative). This type of challenge represents perhaps the simplest type of handicap, which can be characterized as a mandate to the player to not die, to die a limited number of times, or to not take more than a certain level of damage.

In fighting games, players sometimes handicap themselves by playing as weak or “joke” characters. It is still not entirely uncommon to hear a competitive Street Fighter 3 player boast about their mastery of Sean, for example. In many games, particularly stealth games or games with a heavy stealth element, the ability to complete a playthrough without killing a single enemy fulfills a similar role. What classifies both of these examples together is that they do not simply gimp the player, but instead give them a limited toolset which is outside their normal range of comfort and force them to find ways to make use of it. This is very different from other types of self-imposed limitations like level one playthroughs in RPGs, which effectively only serve to gimp the player.

In dancing games as well this is a real phenomenon. I can think of two examples, in fact; players who abhor the use of the bar, and players who will play sets in “S4R”; a term which used to refer to an actual game mode in early versions of Dance Dance Revolution arcade games, but which now refers to a set of modifications performed to a song in the song modification menu. These modifications randomize the arrows, remove the color coding which arrows normally have (which represents what kind of note they represent; 4th note, 8th note etc), and make the arrows invisible until shortly before they reach the arrow targets.

I believe it is possible, broadly, to divide these examples into two different categories. I have already hinted at these categories. In the first category, a handicapped playstyle forces the player to interact with the game in a new way and hence develop new skills. In the second, it simply introduces artificial difficulty which has no later benefit. The distinction is not entirely clear. For instance, an SCC is not so much a limitation but a goal. As a goal, it therefore forces the player to improve certain skills central to shmups, like bullet pattern recognition, dexterity, and fast-twitch firing. However, a level one playthrough of an RPG is also a goal, but does it encourage the development of skill in the same way? It certainly encourages learning the core mechanics of the game, including how to effectively utilize items, but it also places an absolutely huge amount on luck, forcing the player to reset the game repeatedly. The player is also not, for the most part, learning new skills, but rather simply making existing skills less effective due to the nature of RPGs. Because of this, a level one playthrough seems to mostly only serve to introduce tedium and waste time.

Going back to the street fighter example, learning to play with Sean helps a player to build skills in the metagame and in parrying, as they are more reliant on reading other players to make effective use of the character, and as parrying can be used defensively, charges the players special attack bar, and can be used for this purpose in leiu of landing hits (to an extent, obviously). No kill playthroughs encourage the actual use of stealth in stealth games (although this can encourage rote memorization more than skill development, which is a good criticism against it). S4R play develops a players reflexes and pattern reading skills, and encourages them to minimize the amount of motion they invest into stepping on the arrows. No bar play can, to an extent, lead to physical development, but it is also demonstrably less effective than bar play.

Given all of this, the dichotomy is not so clearly defined. However, I might recommend one way of determining whether a handicap serves a long-term purpose or is simply an exercise in masochism, and it is contingent upon the player. If a player celebrates it for its own sake, and sees it as an end in itself, then there is a strong reason to believe it falls into the second category. Particularly in competitive player ecosystems, noncompetitive players are often driven laterally into specializations which are by nature noncompetitive. It is a sour-grapes type of reasoning. Since they cannot be successful at interacting with the game in the manner which is commonly agreed upon to be the “point”, they essentially just declare that the point for them is otherwise. By doing this, and by pursuing a handicapped style of play as an ideal, they obfuscate the fact that they would not be competitive in a non-handicapped version of the game; although the converse is generally not true, as the player who is best at a game with all the tools at their disposal is generally also very good at any variation of the game which can be produced.

– Jessica Evans

Posted by: bracehare | November 16, 2011

Robot Unicorn Attack: A brief analysis

Robot Unicorn Attack is an extremely straightforward “on rails” platformer. You control the eponymous robot unicorn of the title, who moves from left to right automatically. The player has two ways to control the unicorn. They can jump (which includes a double-jump; IE, to jump a second time while in the air following an initial jump), and the can use a dash attack. The jump action is necessary to clear large gaps between platforms, to move from lower platforms up to higher platforms, and to collect fairies for points. The dash attack is used to break through stars, which will kill you if you fail to dash through them. It can also be used to maintain altitude if a player has exhausted their double jump.

Fairies are worth 25 points a piece, and stars are worth 100 points a piece. Death can be caused by falling into the chasm between platforms, by colliding with stars, and by colliding with the side of most platforms (the exception being platforms which are located immediately above other platforms, instead of at a distance from them. Death causes the player to have to start from the beginning, and the player is given only 3 lives, or attempts at the game. This makes it extremely detrimental, and essentially places the scoring emphasis of the game on combo, or prolonged decent play, rather than on “perfect” play. In this context, perfect would perhaps mean collecting every fairy and smashing every star. Additional disincentives against “perfect” play include the clear risk for reward nature of smashing stars, which can kill you if you do not time your dash correctly, and the problems of attaining every fairy brought about by the possibilities of smashing into the side of a platform, using a double-jump prematurely and falling into a chasm, or using a dash to maintain altitude and then discovering a star in an inopportune location on the next platform (the dash has a recharge time). Because of all of these issues, chance plays a role, but since the game seemingly continues ad infinitum, minimizing risk seems to be an optimal strategy. This is an odd incentive structure for an arcade like game to give, but it is the only conclusion I can form on the subject. It is similar to tournament poker in this regard. The incentive is to survive as the rewards for survival are greater than the rewards for pursuing “perfect” play. In poker this would mean maximizing long term return regardless of volatility, whereas tournament poker places a higher incentive on minimizing volatility.

Minimizing risk would seem to be the overarching strategy of the game, whereas doing things like keeping jumps and dashes in reserve whenever possible would seem to represent the necessary tactical decisions. This is extremely simple, and so the ratio of planning to dexterity is very low. Put it all together and you get a very twitchy, very simple game which in spite of its tone and pace seems to emphasize cautious play through its structure. At any rate it is still a very amusing game and I love the soundtrack and aesthetic.

Posted by: bracehare | November 3, 2011

Fallout New Vegas: a brief analysis of structure

Having recently read an excerpt on game story structure taken from a Lee Sheldon textbook, I was intrigued.  Particularly, I was taken by this sentence:

“[The web story structure] still feels familiar to gamers and reviewers because they mistake it for branching.  This indicates that it’s working because they don’t recognize it.”

This lead me to wonder: the Fallout games have, for a while, been a noteworthy example of player choice and of morality systems in games.  In what way is this implemented, though?  The game seems like a sprawling world, but it also has a fairly clear and static beginning and ending.  To an extent, certain missions are only possible along a given path, but others are accessible at any time.  Therefore, the question is to what extent the game follows the structure of a web, and to what extent it follows a branching structure.  It seems clear to me that the game combines elements of both.  However, in having elements of both, the implication seems to be that the game has a web structure, as the essential difference between a branching structure and a web structure is simply that in the latter, there are points where a user can jump from one point in a branch to a point within another branch.  However, I still think it benefits us to examine in what sense and in what places the game has branching structures, and in what sense and in what places the game has a more web like structure.

Fallout: New Vegas has a story and gameplay structure which revolves, in a large sense, around multiple factions.  Furthermore, the story and gameplay of Fallout: New Vegas is mission based.  Certain missions can only be unlocked after the completion of others.  There are, in my estimation, two primary factions, one secondary faction, and a collection of tertiary factions.  The primary factions, the New California Republic and Caesar’s Legion, are at odds with each other.  With minor exceptions, this means that missions which are undertaken for the benefit of Caesar’s Legion and missions which are undertaken for the benefit of the NCR are at odds with each other, and therefore represent different branch paths.  The exceptions to this occur at the beginning of the game, where the player is really only exposed to the NCR (and therefore NCR missions are structured not to put you at odds with Caesar’s Legion, or at least not past a critical point which makes later allegiance with them possible), and at the midpoint of the game, where circumstances allow you a second chance to make a choice of which allegiance to take, and therefore which primary branch of the storyline to take.

The secondary faction, represented by a man named Mr. House and his robot army, is essentially an alternate “out” offered to the player which can be accessed from either primary branch.  The missions which one can do for Mr. House somewhat form their own branch, but this branch is very short owing to the fact it is an ending branch.  It becomes available to the player well after they have made an initial decision regarding which primary branch to follow, and at about the same time as the player is presented with their “mulligan” by the story.  Each of the primary and secondary factions is associated with their own ending; or rather, with defining the meat of the ending.  The endings in Fallout: New Vegas are essentially mix-and-match from among various elements.  However, the endings are essentially defined by allegiance with a primary or secondary faction, then qualified by actions taken in regards to tertiary factions, various towns, and important NPC characters.  A fourth major branch ending is possible if the player chooses not to ally themselves with any of the primary or secondary factions.  In this case, the tertiary factions take on a much greater significance.

There are many missions which concern none of the factions, and which concern the tertiary factions.  Since the tertiary factions are not really at odds with one another, nor are non-faction missions at odds with any particular branch (with very minor exceptions), this is where the bulk of the web structure comes into play.  It is interesting, in this context, that all of these missions can effect the ending.  To an extent, the game is even modular in regards to these non-critical missions, because many of them can be accessed at any time in the game.  Therefore, Fallout: New Vegas might be described as a formally being a web structure, but in the capacity of modules which are connected to a central skeleton in the form of a branching system.  But of course, this skeleton is not purely a branching system, as there are points where you can exit one branch in favor of another.  This is a very complex structure.  In my experience with the game so far, I have enjoyed it quite a bit.  It seems to allow for a “best of both worlds” approach in terms of the traditionally dichotomous relationship between player freedom and authorial narrative control.  While the major decisions of the game (represented by the endings) are still in some essential way limited to four branches, the player is allowed extreme freedom to craft a much larger number of qualifications to those branches over the course of the game, and is allowed this secondary sort of freedom for essentially the duration of the game.  There are 27 different non-trivial subsections of any given ending in New Vegas.  Between all the different possible qualifications to each subsection, there are a literal 180 different discrete qualifications.  As these belong to unique modules which can be combined in various ways, the actual number of possible endings is much, much larger.  Of course, since much of what determines the outcome of many of these modules concerns the decisions made in regards to primary or secondary factions, the actual number of different uniquely combinable discrete qualifications is more like 45.  The result is still a very large number of different endings, though, even if all endings fundamentally still belong to one of four primary branches.  It is a definite testament to the complexity of a game that I do not want to actually do all of the math necessary to determine the number of possible endings within it.

– Jessica Evans

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