Videogames and Defeat

My latest article at The Escapist focuses on how videogames handle defeat, and how they often choose not to. I look at a how a few high-profile games have chosen to tried to make war an unequivocally positive gameplay experience. Then I consider the way wargames and sims, despite a reputation for bloodlessness and abstraction, can end up bringing us much closer to the experience.

Since it’s been on my mind so much lately, I use Silent Hunter III as an example of the way an unaffected, straightforward military sim can elicit a tremendously empathetic reaction. I’ll probably explore this idea a bit further here on the blog.

The article is called “The Agony of Defeat”. You can read it here.

Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare: Play :: Pornography: Sex

One thought keeps recurring when I play Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: “Why even bother?”

Followed by the corollary: “Is this really what people want?”

I finally finished the single-player campaign for the first time. This was an overdue playthrough, certainly, but I could never quite bring myself to buy the game after I tried the demo. My friend Lange gave it to me when I asked to borrow it, saying that Modern Warfare had left him utterly cold. Now I see why.

Imagine how cool this would be if you were actually playing.

Imagine how cool this would be if you were actually playing.

I started to get a bad feeling during the very first mission, as my team boarded a storm-tossed freighter. The scene was evocative, but as my SAS team swept across the deck, I did not feel like I was in control of my character. It felt like if I took my hands off the keyboard and mouse, “Soap” MacTavish would continue to move toward the hatchway below the bridge. The whole thing reminded me of those times when you’re playing split-screen multiplayer and you are looking at the wrong window, thinking you’re in control while watching someone else play.

I don’t remember previous Call of Duties having such a strong sensation of being on a conveyor belt. They were heavily scripted, yes, but I felt like I had some freedom in the space between the trigger points. Now I constantly feel like I’m tugged along against my will. The effect extends to the way the game looks. I always feel crowded and claustrophobic, because all the characters seem to suffer from tunnel vision. Trees, buildings, and other types of cover cut deeply into the level maps. Whether I’m in the Ukrainian countryside or a subterranean missile bunker, I am always fighting in alleys.

The scripting is likewise more in-your-face than almost any shooter I can remember. The game practically revels in your sheer lack of agency. This is what I noticed in the demo, and why I couldn’t quite bring myself to get excited about the thought of the entire game.

Modern Warfare, making sure you know your place from the start

Modern Warfare, making sure you know your place from the start

In the part of the game excerpted for the demo, you and your Marine squad start taking heavy machine gun fire from a tenement house. I took cover behind a car and heard the Lieutenant start yelling something about how we needed to get around these guys. I took one look at the constellation of muzzle flashes and the deafening roar of heavy weapons and thought, Are you out of your fucking mind?

I kept shooting machine gunners and riflemen from my cover position, trying to suppress them enough so I could move, but within a second or two of clearing a window, a new gunman would take over the position. This went on and on, and I had this vivid flashback of a game I had forgotten: Hogan’s Alley, a lightgun game for the NES. Almost twenty years later, Modern Warfare was feeding me the same game mechanic.

Feel free to keep shooting. Or dont. It doesnt matter.

Feel free to keep shooting. Or don't. It doesn't matter.

This sequence turned me into a lost sale, and it repeats throughout the game. At another point I was tasked with destroying some BMPs while fighting off waves of Russian ultranationalist soldiers. I noticed a few streaming out of a hangar and gunned them down with my SAW. Before I could turn away, however, a few more came out of the same hangar. Then a few more after them. Then more. Every two seconds, someone came out, marched into my crosshairs, and joined the growing pile of corpses outside the building. It was like a cross between a clown car and a batting cage, far more Hot Shots Part Deux than 24.

The nail in the coffin, however, is Modern Warfare’s passive-aggressive level design. Time again, I find my progress blocked because I am not going to the magic spot that Infinity Ward has decided is the correct place to fight, or I haven’t identified the correct route through an encounter. Whenever I am in danger of improvising, I can practically hear the game turning into a Woody Allen character. “Are you sure? You’re positive this is the best way to handle this? Because in my opinion, and I say this with all due respect, your plan may be the worst thing conceivable. I just want the record to show that I was not responsible for what you are about to do.”

But even if you try to be an obedient little drone, Modern Warfare won’t make clear what it actually wants. It will demur. “Oh, I don’t know where you should defend from. Anywhere seems like it could work. I don’t want to ruin anything for you. It’s your game, after all, not mine.”

The game has many sequences that behave this way, but I think the quintessential example has to be the last stand beneath the Pripyat Ferris wheel. You set your wounded comrade, Lt. MacMillan, on a ridge where he can command a wide field of fire. Then you get hit by wave upon wave of Russian troops while waiting for exfiltration.

I tried to defend my spotter / team leader, but kept dying while the rescue chopper was about 4 klicks out. Oh, for awhile it was a heroic gunbattle as I gave ground while leaving piles of Russian dead in my wake. I was furiously setting traps, detonating charges, and switching between my rifle and my shotgun. But nothing I did seemed to make a difference.

On my best run, I spent my last few minutes hiding behind a bumper car in the back corner. The Russians had a hard time getting to me, and had a tendency to run right past me into positions where I could easily gun them down. This made me think, “What if I tried holding out behind the bumper car platform?”

This shouldn’t work. It meant abandoning my teammate, but of course he is invulnerable. One gimpy Irishman with a sniper rifle turns out to be tougher to kill than Roland. When we finally get Call of Duty: Easter Rising, Connolly will probably get out of his chair and simply kick the Tommies’ asses.

The Russians should just be able to pin me down, lob a bunch of grenades at me, and maybe send some guys around the flank to kill me. I’d say they should be able to get me from behind as well, but it just so happens that a field of radiation fences off the space behind the bumper cars.

Bumper Car Masada

Bumper Car Masada

So I hid behind the track, running back and forth while dodging grenades and watching Russian troops charge up the ridge that I wasn’t defending. Sometimes they rushed at me, but were confounded by the railings at the edge of the bumper track.

Eventually, the chopper showed up, and I walked back across the ridge, grabbed my invincible cargo, and boarded.

There was nothing convincing about my response to this sequence. Everything I did was suggested by the exploitable level design and mechanics. My teammate couldn’t be killed, so I could leave him alone. The Russians couldn’t outflank me because the designers left an obvious corner in the gameworld, and they were also scripted to attack along a single axis. By moving to the artificial corner behind the bumper cars, I also placed myself perpendicular to their path of attack. The scripting was too rigid to allow them to face me head on, so I was able to mow them down as they rushed past.

My objection to this structure is that it fundamentally breaks the contract I sign when I load up a Call of Duty game. They are supposed to, and often have, made me feel like I am in an old-fashioned war movie. But with Modern Warfare, I feel more like I’m on the set of a war movie, and Infinity Ward is the director, yelling at me to use the blocking and hit my marks.

This just about sums up the experience

This just about sums up the experience

What I’ve seen in COD 4: Modern Warfare and World at War has made me seriously skeptical for the future of this franchise. Regardless of how these games perform commercially, they are feeling increasingly antique after games like Stalker or Far Cry 2. This isn’t to say that every game needs to be an open-worlder (far from it, as the Half-Life series continues to show), but there are more and more games that dazzle me with freedom and possibility. Modern Warfare tries to dazzle me with spectacle, but I can never quite bring myself to forget its shackles.

Looking Back at the Aughts

For the next several weeks, I’m going to be working with my friend and colleague Troy Goodfellow on a special project over at Flash of Steel. Troy is wrapping up 2009 with a decade retrospective on strategy gaming since the turn of the millenium, and he was kind enough to invite me to contribute. Troy, Bruce Geryk, and myself are picking out a game from each year of the decade that we think was significant in some way.

In true strategy gamer tradition, we don’t remotely agree one what constitutes a strategy game, so you may see some eyebrow-raising choices over the next couple months. We’ll probably stretch and twist the definition pretty mercilessly.

Anyway, I kicked things off yesterday with a piece on Shogun: Total War. It’s not my favorite of the Total War series, but I would argue it is the most important and perhaps the most interesting. So come gaze into the Pensieve, and together we will revisit 2000, and a pivotal moment in my life as a gamer.

Captain, Pride Will Be the Death of You

Patrol, March-April 1940 – Off the Yorkshire Coast

The greatest danger I face in Silent Hunter III is overconfidence. After a few months of raiding British and Norwegian shipping without having to worry about destroyer escorts or air cover, I have developed bad habits.

I bring my U-boat to the surface without bothering to do a periscope check, because there is never anyone nearby. I start surface cruising while the sun is still setting rather than waiting for nightfall. I push my luck well past dawn, enjoying the higher speeds my Type VIIB U-boat can achieve compared to its glacial pace below the surface and its crummy batteries.

I have shot it out with a flight of Hurricane fighter-bombers rather than dive to safety. The other morning I launched torpedoes at a British cargo ship while a destroyer closed in from behind. It’s not like the Royal Navy is suddenly going to become competent.

Most missions in Silent Hunter III are not this exciting or rewarding. At this stage of the war, there is not enough shipping traffic across the Atlantic to make deep-ocean patrols very productive. Furthermore, blue water commerce raiding is conducted almost exclusively with torpedo attacks. The seas in the Mid-Atlantic range from rough to terrifying, so I can never use my 88mm deck gun. This is the downside of the way the U-boat is designed. It has such a shallow draft, and rides so low across the surface, that it gets tossed around like a bath toy in stormy seas. Unless the ocean is smooth as glass, crew members can’t safely walk out to the gun platform on the bow of the boat.

This used to drive me crazy, because there were times I would look at the gentle waves rocking my ship and think, “What kind of wimps couldn’t walk fifteen feet across the deck in this?” I’ve mellowed, however, since I took a ferry across Lake Michigan last month and encountered significant chop. I was standing below the bridge on the ferry’s upper deck when I got slammed in the face by a wave that somehow vaulted the 20 feet from the waterline to my face. Then I tried to walk back across the slick and pitching deck while being pelted by more shockingly cold waves. I was almost on my hands and knees by the time I made it inside the cabin. Now I understand, and you couldn’t get me onto the deck of a heaving U-boat at gunpoint

Still, it’s annoying to be forced to rely on torpedoes. They’re unreliable even when they hit the target, and hitting the target is far from easy. Plus, my Type VII only has room for about ten of them. Since it’s rare to sink a ship with anything less than two torpedoes, and they fail 30% of the time, I’m probably not going to get more than three kills with them.

Fortunately, my most recent mission assigned me to calm coastal waters off the northeastern coast of England, which allowed me to use the deck gun. Better still, it put me on the trade lanes between Scandinavia and England, near the bay leading out of the Firth of Forth. Once I arrived on site, my patrol turned into the beach scene from Jaws.

No sooner had I sent one freighter to the bottom than I stumbled across another one. From sundown to sunrise, every night was a killing spree. Once I’d finished my assigned patrol, I started angling closer and closer toward the Firth of Forth. The Royal Navy seemed to vector more destroyers into that sector as the body count increased, but they couldn’t detect me even when we were within a couple kilometers.

My ammunition for the deck gun started to run low and I tried a more frugal routine. I would strike first with a torpedo, then finish them off with shots from the 88.

My first attempt at running this kind of attack, however, is when the computer decided to screw me.

I was stalking a medium sized merchantman in the middle of the night. He had no idea I was nearby as I moved to close on him. However, he was moving fast and would soon leave my ideal “attack window.”

Because  torpedoes are so dodgy in this game, you really want your shots to approach the target from close to perpendicular.  A torpedo that strikes the hull at less than a 45 angle is very likely to glance off.

So I was going to launch from medium range and finish him off with the 88. Since it was a rather large cargo ship, I decided to launch a pair of torpedoes with a one degree spread between them. At this range, that should have both of them striking the fore and aft of the target. With luck, they might kill it.

What I didn’t realize is that they were two different models of torpedo: the first was the steam-powered torpedo with variable speed settings. I adjused it to medium speed, since I didn’t want it running out of power before reaching the target. The slowest setting has a very long range, but I have found that the longer the time to target, the lower the chance that you will actually hit.

Unfortunately, the second torpedo was the electric model, which has one speed: slow.  It pretty much walks from your U-boat, stops at a diner along the way, has breakfast and two coffee refills, then finishes its leisurely commute to whatever the hell you’re trying to kill.

I am not a fan.

Not checking to make sure the torpedoes matched was my fault. However, what the computer did wrong was calculate a firing solution as if the torpedoes were identical.

So when I fired at 5000 m, one of the torpedoes was a miss straight away. I watched it fall behind the first torpedo, until over a kilometer opened up between them. However, the first torpedo was still on track to hit.

This is when I sent my gun crew topside and the computer screwed me over for a second time. Because I was busy making course adjustments, crew reassignments, and tracking my torpedo’s progress, I detailed my watch officer to oversee the gun. I’d relieve him once I was finished with my other tasks.

We were at 3500 m and the torpedo was still 90 seconds from impact, when he started blasting away as fast as the crew could reload. I quickly ordered him to cease fire, but the damage was done. Through my range-finder I could see the merchantman freak. He throttled up and jammed the rudder to port. My torpedo’s firing solution was completely blown, and it passed behind the target.

The reason my watch officer opened fire is because, three days earlier, I had given him the order to fire at will. Silent Hunter III remembers what your last orders were to the watch officer, and considers those orders to be standing. So when he took position, he had the order, “Fire at will” even though it made no sense to do so.

The merchie was making an impressive run for it, so I fired another fast torpedo in the hopes of hobbling him. It was a beautiful shot and caught him squarely in the middle of a starboard zag… but the torpedo bounced off the hull.

Three torpedoes. Not a single hit.

I popped a pair of starburst shells into the night sky above the merchant. They blazed to life on either side of him, turning his patch of ocean brighter than daytime and letting me watch my shot-fall. I took over the deck gun and opened fire.

It refused to die.

I hammered it for over ten minutes before it finally gave up the ghost. Between my idiot watch officer’s moment of glory and my own gunnery, this attack had cost me about 20 high-explosive rounds for my gun. This represented about a quarter of my high-explosive ammo.

Just like that, my picture perfect patrol had taken a sharp turn for the worse. Suddenly I was low on every kind of ship-killing ammunition, because of bad luck and some insane decision from my AI crewmen.

Even though I scored quite a few more kills over the remainder of the patrol, I had to become much more miserly in how I attacked. My cause was not helped by the fact that I only scored about four torpedo hits on my entire patrol. I headed home having sunk about 9000 tons less than I should have.

At this stage of the game, I’m pretty much playing for high-scores. My next sortie, I’m going to try and break the 35,000 tons that I sank on this patrol. It’s frustrating, however, to be so hindered by misfiring torpedoes and boneheaded mistakes. I always get back to the sub pens at Kiel, look at my patrol report, and immediately start thinking about how many more ships I could have killed if only things had worked.

Then I promise myself things will go better next time, and I head back out. In early 1940, ammunition is the only thing slowing me down.

Heir to the Empire Rediscovered

A couple days ago I moved the front layer of sci-fi paperbacks off the bookshelf and started digging around in the row they had been hiding. I was trying to locate my copy of Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn’s first Star Wars novel and the book that pretty much launched the “Expanded Universe”. I probably read his trilogy a dozen times when I was growing up, and his books did as much as the movies to turn me into a Star Wars fanatic. In point of fact, Timothy Zahn understood the Star Wars universe much better than George Lucas ultimately did. Much of what I cherished in that universe is actually Zahn’s doing, not Lucas’s.

Heir to the Empire

Heir to the Empire

Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of the main protagonists in TIE Fighter and its expansions, was Zahn’s creation and remains one of the best villains I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Thrawn is as calculating as Sherlock Holmes, as charismatic as Patton, and as coldly brutal as Michael Corleone. An aesthete who studies art to psychologically profile his enemies, Thrawn consistently remains two or three steps ahead of the New Republic’s leadership until the very end. He is also an outsider to the Imperial power structure. A nonhuman who attained the highest rank in a deeply xenophobic military, Thrawn always seems to regard the dead Emperor and Lord Vader with a mixture of contempt and amusement. He is cleaning up after their mess because they were stupid and racist, and Thrawn is neither. He represents both the kind of talent that is driven underground in a society based on inequality, and the kind of unrelenting self-assurance and ruthlessness that come with being a minority member of such a ruling class.

If you played the Star Wars video games, you saw a lot of material and concepts that came from Zahn’s work. The Imperial Interdictor Cruiser, which prevented ships from entering hyperspace and often played a crucial roll in TIE Fighter missions, was his creation. As was the Z-95 Headhunter, the Dreadnaught-class Heavy Cruiser, the Escort Carrier, the Golan Defense Platform, and many of the other craft that showed up in Lawrence Holland’s Star Wars sims. I loved the movies, but Zahn and Holland ultimately made Star Wars real to me.

Like Fine Wine

When I was moving into my apartment a few months ago, I unpacked Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command and held them briefly, wondering if their 1500 pages would still be as magical to me now as they were when I was a kid.  Much of the sci-fi and fantasy that I enjoyed as child and teenager has not really survived my growing sophistication as a reader and writer. What was once exciting is revealed to be contrived. What was vivid is gaudy. What was romantic and sexy is cliched and childish.

Happily, Zahn’s trilogy seems to have escaped that fate. I was in its grip from the moment the book began, with Captain Pellaeon dressing down a young lieutenant aboard the Star Destroyer Chimaera before taking a report to Thrawn’s private chamber. Characters like Pellaeon, Thrawn, twisted Jedi Master Joruus C’Baoth, smuggler chieftan Talon Karrde, and Mara Jade remain as interesting to me as ever. In fact, I find in many ways I am getting more out of the books now than I did when I was young. Some of the subtleties of character that I missed are more apparent.

For instance, Lando Calrissian often seemed like the dandified fop of Star Wars’ band of heroes. But Zahn understood that most of what we saw of Lando was an act. His smooth charm, gaudy tastes, and rakish attitude toward business was mostly an act he put on to fool both Han and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. He was “good old Lando” with Han because he had already sold Han out and needed to cover that fact. He was a low-rent criminal and gambler with Vader because that was the only way he could keep Vader from simply killing him and seizing Cloud City. The “gentleman gambler” persona that he cultivated was overplayed by later and lesser Star Wars writers. Zahn takes care to show that Lando is shrewd, far more perceptive than he shows, and deadly serious about his enterprises.

Thrawn is another character who I find has eluded me until now. Where before I only noticed his tactical and strategic brilliance, and his uncanny ability to reach the right conclusions based on scant and fragmentary evidence, I am now realizing how blind he is to people’s feelings. Pellaeon sees it, which is why Pellaeon is secretly one of the book’s heroes. Pellaeon, despite a lifetime steeped in prejudice and service, understands people far better than does Thrawn. As Thrawn engages in a battle of wills with C’Baoth, Pellaeon realizes that Thrawn is the one who is out bounds. While Thrawn is making certain that C’Baoth knows his place, Pellaeon sees that Thrawn is trying to wring servility out of a proud man who already agreed to provide service. Pellaeon, not Thrawn, realizes that the Noghri assassins that Thrawn uses are not simply robotic killing machines. Thrawn dismisses a failed operation that will “only cost us some Noghri”, ignoring his Noghri bodyguard standing nearby. Pellaeon knows that Thrawn is falling prey to hubris.

Caught between an insane Jedi Master and a strong-willed genius, Pellaeon is forced to become a subtle manipulator and self-effacing counselor. He finds compromises between the two men that preserve their tenuous peace, and works to curb Thrawn’s worst excesses without Thrawn ever noticing. That Pellaeon has to do this, and is able to succed at it despite Thrawn’s keen intelligence, is the warning that Thrawn himself has fatal flaws.

Perhaps what most surprises me in this reading, however, is what Zahn did with the character of Luke Skywalker. What I missed in previous readings was how incredibly lonely and isolated Luke Skywalker has become since Return of the Jedi. Zahn really considers the implications of the tasks that Luke has been given, and what happens to someone like him as a universe that needed him starts to move on. Han and Leia are married and expecting the birth of their twins. Luke is suddenly on the outside of their relationship. His best friends have a life that is separate from his own. The Rebel Alliance has become the New Republic, and political operators are starting to take the reins from the Alliance’s original leadership. They are careful to show Luke respect, but neither need nor want his advice.

Worse, Luke must train the next generation of Jedi and does not know how. There are few records and no peers remaining. He must train his sister, and someday her children, but is haunted Ben Kenobi’s catastrophic failure with their father. People expect him to do a dangerous and delicate job for which is has had no training. He barely understands what it means to be a Jedi, yet people treat him as though he were an authority on the subject. He is oppressed by the specter of failure, and no longer has anyone who can really understand what he is going through.

It is telling that when Mara Jade changes course and drops out of hyperspace without really knowing why, the Force is guiding her to the place where Luke Skywalker is stranded with a broken hyperdrive. He is sleeping in the cockpit of his damaged X-Wing, the symbol of his identity as a war hero, lost in space and unable to move.

Like I said, I’m surprised at how well these books have held up.

Just a Restless Feeling

It’s about 7:45 and I’m finishing up coffee and breakfast in a cafe near my apartment in east Cambridge. I’ve been awake since 4:30. It has been raining all morning, and outside these windows it is a parade of dark umbrellas and shockingly bright ponchos. I am glad to be in here with my coffee and scone.

I used to arrive at school every morning at this time, and being up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning did not seem like much of a feat. For the past couple years, waking up anytime before 8 seemed like a miraculous event, one deserving of some kind of commendation medal. “For Excellence in Getting Out of Bed Prior to Lunch, the Committee Awards on This Day…”

Now my day starts well before dawn, because I have reluctantly acknowledged that I am unable to do any work that is the least bit intellectually taxing after lunch.

I don’t know what happens. Whatever I have for lunch, however much or little I have of it, I become an uncreative, distracted procrastinator the moment the dishes are cleared away. I can still do chores, play games, or even do some light editing work, but I cannot write or conduct much research.

It was killing me how I would deceive myself. I would front-load the day a bit, but I’d always promise myself that I could make up for lost time in the afternoon or early evening. Didn’t make my word-count? I’d get there before dinner. At the very least I’d put together a good outline.

So time and again I’d find myself, at 10 at night, staring at a legal pad with “OUTLINE” written across the top. Underneath, I’d have: “Main argument: WTF happened to video game manuals? This is bullshit.”

And underneath that: “Supporting argument 1: Manuals were cool.”

The rest of the page would be blank. This would represent 12 or 13 hours of “work” in which I pointlessly browsed the web, wrote and deleted several introductory paragraphs, and refused to let myself do anything else because I had not accomplished my day’s goals yet.

If there is one thing of which I am sure, it is that I am consistent in my inconsistency.  A few years ago I could only work in coffee shops, one in particular. If I couldn’t make it down College Avenue to one of the cafes, my entire day would end up going to waste. Then, for no reason at all, I stopped being able to get work done there and started to do all my work in my office. Then that stopped working, and I split work between my living room and libraries.

When I was a freshman in college, I couldn’t write a damn thing before 11 at night. My best papers were completed between midnight and dawn, except that suddenly I started missing deadlines because the night schedule stopped working. Suddenly I could only work between lunch and 10 P.M.

I hope my current schedule will last. It’s liberating to know that my workday has a set endpoint, and that it won’t drag itself out through my afternoon and night. I have had problems in the past with letting work sort of consume my life, simply because I never really scheduled breaks from it. I would be tremendously sick of an article I was writing before I’d even finished three paragraphs, because it was pestering me from the moment I turned on the shower in the morning to the moment I fell asleep.

Here’s the dilemma I can’t solve: some days I can’t get a damn thing done. I can tell, halfway through, that I’m not going to write anything usable or have any clever insights. Should that be a signal to walk away, or do I honor my commitment to work for a given number of hours, whether or not I accomplish anything. Because giving up can also become habitual, yet beating your head against a wall is undeniably pointless.

Except that I always wonder: when I have that flash of insight after days of struggling with a piece, is that just a sign that I’m having a good day and things have finally come together, or is it the product of a subconscious cognitive process that’s happening while I struggle through unproductive workdays?

I write all this because it’s on my mind. My approach to the workday gets the job done, but I still feel  like I end up wasting a lot of time. I’m just not sure how to improve my efficiency.