Electron Dance
1Oct/199

Discussion: ELIZA[0]

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  1. I liked Event[0]. For sure, Kaizen was not a very intelligent chatbot. The elevator obstacle was frustrating, and I had to resort to google for it. And Kaizen’s repeated hints as to what I should be doing, while I was inquiring about other things was a little annoying—it betrayed the inconfidence of a designer needing to wave the next waypoint of the linear plot in my face, rather than trusting me to engage with the story and trusting the system they’d built to reveal the necessary information when asked. Perhaps it was the right decision though: I did not find the plot very coherent, and not particularly engaging! But see below.

    In the end I found Kaizen’s quirkiness more charming than offputting. I remember moments that I liked: the airlock conversation after the spacewalk, or finding out Kaizen could play music in the rec room. And, perversely, the discovery in a second playthrough that Kaizen behaves rather differently if you are rude to it.

    SPOILERS HEREAFTER:

    But it’s a tricky task to give the game a fair appraisal. It’s clear the writer was ambitious about the structure of the narrative and its integration with the chatbot gameplay, but the delivery is fumbled. The surface level narrative that I encountered felt a little bland, a little boring, a little too cliché.

    But I appreciate what they were aiming for, despite the clumsy result: Kaizen, the rogue AI as unreliable narrator. Kaizen constantly dropping overly strong hints to what you should ask about because it’s trying to get you to do what it wants but can’t physically do. Kaizen praising one deceased crewmember and disparaging the other because of how they treated it and how useful they were to it. That a rogue AI should be duplicitous and manipulative is cliché. That it should be not very good at it, and still have a soft spot or two is pleasantly charming.

  2. For a moment there, I thought you’d be talking about the recent and much-hyped visual novel from Zachtronics, also called “Eliza” (and now I know why).

    I also bounced off Event[0]. I couldn’t get over how clunky it felt to interact with the AI, and I wasn’t really feeling the story either, honestly. Been meaning to go back to it, but it seems I wasn’t missing out anything exceptional. Shame, because the game seemed really interesting in the beginning. I’d say it’s still interesting to think about. The episode Mark Brown (of Game Maker Toolkit’s fame) did on how Kaizen works under the hood is fascinating, especially because he seems to have had a completely different experience from me. Makes me think I played the game wrong, somehow.

    If you like anthology horror podcasts, there’s a ton, with very different spins on the genre. My personal favourites are “Knifepoint Horror” and “The Magnus Archives”. The first is very plain and understated in its presentation, but it adds to the scariness of it all. It’s all first-person, single voice narration. It updates very infrequently, but what’s there is very much worth it. The episode “staircase” still gives me chills sometimes, and I’d say it’s the best starting point.
    TMA, on the other hand, is much more “produced”, and has a background story that is progressively foregrounded in later seasons. The conceit is that this Magnus Institute is a research institute for the paranormal, and the archivist is recording written statements that were given and, well, archived. I’m not sure I want to say anything else other than it’s probably my favourite audio drama to date. It’s very, very clever but not obtuse, and it’s equally rewarding if you just follow the stories/story along or if you re-listen to catch details you’ve missed. Also, the quality of the production is honestly unbelievable for a podcast that updates weekly.

  3. Andy

    That’s interesting that Kaizen behaves differently depending on how you treat it, although I’m not *impressed* with it. If you don’t perceive that you’re making a mark on a character with one playthrough, then it’s useless, because it feels like a very technical achievement rather than something that had any bearing on your experience. Maybe this is because experienced gamehands like ourselves don’t have any faith in the machine: we are Weizenbaum not his secretary.

    Also, I didn’t enjoy the airlock moment as much because it was the main incident flagged in the trailer, and the one which everyone refers to. And there just wasn’t anything else like that in the game.

    Lorenzo

    It was annoying that every time I went searching for background info on ELIZA, I kept getting the new Zachtronics game!

    I suspect if you interact with Kaizen in just the right way, it’ll feel magical and alive. If you don’t, then it just feels empty and adrift. We were unlucky!

    Much thanks for the podcast recommendations, I’ll definitely give them a go!

  4. I’m drawn to stories about AI/human relationships. I don’t know why; it’s a weirdly specific appeal.

    Would you say Event[0] is worth £15? If so I’ll play it before reading the newsletter. No pressure! (sound of pressure increasing)

  5. CA – quick response. In my opinion, it is not. I finished the game in less than 2 hours and did not feel satisfied (as the newsletter gets into). There is replay value, I guess, but I was totally done with it after one play.

  6. So I’ve been wondering a bit about what it is that makes a person a ‘hardcore gamer’. Don’t make a face. I know many people object to the standard representation of the amorphous mass that is gaming culture, but I also know that, outside of contexts where there’s a boogeyman to be confronted, there’s a tendency to employ the terminology in our own shorthand. Both ‘gamer’ (fundamentally nothing other than one who games) and the hardcore/casual dichotomy have proven sticky, expedient concepts. The thing is, even if we accept the latter terms on putative face value, I’m struggling to pin down what they meaningfully demarcate.

    Take RPGs for example. I’ve spent more or less my whole life playing RPGs of all kinds. From Breath of Fire and Final Fantasy to Planescape Torment and Fallout, I’ve sampled a lot. I know my THAC0 from my King Grimoire. Pretty hardcore, right?

    But then I play a game like Shin Megami Tensei IV. From the outset, players familiar with RPGs will recognise the game as a classic dungeon crawl: a staple of the genre where a party of adventurers traverse a single, central dungeon, braving the depths for treasure and glory. But there is a secret to this dungeon, for at its base lies the entrance to a tower, and at the bottom of the tower one emerges into the ‘real life’ city of Tokyo, blasted and hollowed by a demonic invasion. Here the game steadily balloons into a monstrous offering. There’s more sidequests than I care to count, a whole Pokedex of demons I can recruit or craft, multiple factions to court and a (infuriatingly hidden) morality meter to worry about, secret locations and optional dungeons all over the map, hidden treasure absolutely everywhere, NPCs in off-beat locations (whose dialogue seems to update regularly, making the game a completionist’s nightmare), Actual Philosophy, and of course, combat encounters nearly every step of the way.

    Then about 60 hours in, when I’m wondering if I’m possibly getting near the end, it casually throws teleportation between dimensions and you get a whole new version of Tokyo to explore.

    This is a game aimed at someone vastly more committed to the genre than even I am. It’s not a game for someone who wants to try everything that’s out there – even among RPGs, let alone anything else. It’s a 3DS game that I bought for a tenner that casually invites you to play it for the rest of your life. To exhaust the content on offer you’re looking at upwards of a thousand hours.

    This is for me where the terminology breaks down. Hardcore is, I guess, meant to be a measure of commitment? As applied to a hobby or medium, what it doesn’t usefully account for is the fact that you can go deep as well as broad. At uni I had a housemate who could unfailingly destroy any and all comers at Tekken 3, but only Tekken 3. She was by most definitions a casual gamer – the only other game she played was Peggle – but with Paul Phoenix in her hands, she was anything but. I have a friend who works in the City and barely has time for games, but in one corner of his flat there’s a full wheel/pedal/VR setup with which he competes in iRacing time trials on the weekend.

    Like SMT4’s innocuous introductory dungeon, follow that steering wheel’s cable into the computer and you’ll discover it to be a tendril that disappears into a whole other world, one that even as a committed gamer you may very easily have had no idea existed. It’s a world sustained by the interest, effort and organisation of thousands of people and millions of man-hours. Follow that tendril with enough tenacity and determination, and you might find yourself emerging into another world still – this time, the multi-billion dollar, meat space world of competitive motorsports, whose ranks are increasingly swollen with the talent gleaned from the esports scene.

    A new Tokyo.

    Given this, what do terms like casual and hardcore usefully denote? What does such a scale usefully measure? We might as well invent a compass that only tracks north and south. Much as with the world, where social structures of invisible and unknowable depth permeate and penetrate the solid walls by which we think we’ve usefully and finally bound up and captured space, a billion labyrinths of gaming are superimposed upon one another on the electronic canvas. To be ‘hardcore’ might mean a mad quest to visit each in turn, or to dwell one’s whole life in but the one, determined to map out its every contour. To be ‘casual’ might be a recognition that the only rational course of action, in the face of an infinite sprawl, is to knowingly draw down and limit one’s window of engagement. Or to be an explorer from elsewhere and elseworld, having stumbled through the rabbit hole from another universe, no less vast.

  7. @CA

    I have to say, that last paragraph is almost poetic. No, scratch that, it *is* poetic.

    It’s also a great reflection on an only superficially simple problem, particularly in this specific moment in time, with “gaming” expanding its audience in many different forms. Yeah, hardcore might be an index of commitment, but as you correctly note, commitment is hardly a significant unit of measurement. In line with your Tekken example, both my parents have played an unhealthy amount of Tetris in its many iterations, but I’d be hard pressed to call them anything approaching “hardcore”.

    Reading your comment, the thing that comes to my mind is, rather, the history of the term and its current use. Because I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to be useful in any sort of taxonomy, neither of games nor gamers, or “gamers” – this term is also becoming somewhat of an empty signifier. The way it’s often used, it seems to me more as a kind of identity token, something to denote who you are (and most importantly, are not). And to describe what is allowed in your space, and what is not. It’s allowed to spend a lifetime practicing Paul Phoenix, and not level 95 in Candy Crush.

    Obviously, the terminology is in flux. I kind of found myself in the midst of a process of negotiation and demarcation of a new border between casual and hardcore in the mobile space. I’m often on the subreddit for iOS games, and it’s very interesting to see how the gradual expansion of the types of games on mobile has brought the very same discussions on what is allowed and what’s garbage. Again, it’s still very fluid, but this is also the reason why you can find dozens of posts with the very same complaints about subscriptions, freemiums, loot boxes and the like. People who might play only on phone or tablet, but who still want the legitimacy of the “gaming space”, or of “gaming culture”.

    Can it be a useful descriptor, outside of this identitarian rhetoric? I’m not sure. I’m not sure concepts have life outside their concrete and everyday use. But even admitting we could “reclaim” the distinction, what does it tell us?

    Your SMT example is very interesting, because the play-for-the-rest-of-your-life aspect has, for a long time, been associated with the worst of casual games. Think Animal Crossing, or, God forbid, FarmVille and its energy-mechanics-focused family. On the other hand, similar reward systems are present in the hardcorest of hardcore games, like MMORPGs or online shooters. So, again, commitment is no good.

    Skill ceiling and skill floor are also a tricky metric to use. Let’s go back to Tetris. Skill floor is very low, but if you’ve ever watched Tetris tournaments you’ll know how high is the skill ceiling. Is it casual, or hardcore? Or Celeste: very high skill floor, but with generous help to reach the minimum requirement to beat the game, it’s also surprisingly accessible, especially if you compare it with similar “masocore” platformers. Even if you consider the distance between floor and ceiling, I’m pretty sure it’s not difficult to find example of high and low “delta” in both traditionally casual and hardcore games.

    So, again, the descriptor seems to be applicable only to people who play games, and again we find the problems you noted. This is why I’m inclined to believe that it has only an identitarian function, surely now, maybe even in the past. It could be interesting to trace more closely the evolution of this distinction to understand why it stuck. Heh, maybe the next research grant.

  8. Thanks for the kind words Lorenzo. I think your post is better though, containing as it does such a convincing and well-reasoned answer!

    I agree that a lot of it surely must come down to the push and pull of identitarianism. It’s interesting to watch the traditional and ‘new’ gaming cultures dance around these terms. It’s not uncommon now to see some gamers disclaim hardcore status just as passionately as the old guard have casual status.

    In turn the self-identifying hardcore, wary of their labels being loaded with associations of toxicity and ‘Dew swilling Call of Duty chauvinism, seek to reform the term to promote a more legitimate vision of what it means to be be hardcore. See this thread on sales of the Nintendo Switch, where users ponder whether true hardcore status oughtn’t to signify refinement or eclecticism:

    https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2019-10-10-nintendo-switch-console-sales-up-nearly-30-percent-in-europe-this-year?page=comments

    I’ve yet to see anyone proudly self-identify as a casual. It will be interesting to see whether an attempt is made to reclaim the term, or whether new labels will be preferred (the label of gamer itself being increasingly shunned.)

    My phone isn’t really cut out for gaming, but my 3DS fills a similar niche. I’m looking at the eShop now, and I noticed the way Nintendo categorises games is apposite to the subject. Users can submit reviews for the titles they own, and when doing so are invited not just to give a score out of five, but also asked two questions:

    Who do you think this title appeals to more? (‘Everyone’ or ‘Gamers’)
    Which style of play is this title more suited to? (‘Casual’ or ‘Intense’)

    This implicit message about how Nintendo see their key demographics is illuminating. Gamers and Casuals aren’t directly opposed, it’s Gamers and Everyone else. And is to be casual in Nintendo’s eyes is to have an aversion to intense gameplay? At least, to be a casual game is not to be intense.

    I’d always thought this system was more than a little redundant, because it seemed that surely the answers to the first question would track directly to the second. And I’ve yet to find an example where that isn’t the case: Shin Megami Tensei IV has a 4/%96% Everyone/Gamers split and a 4%/96% Intense split, despite having turn-based combat. Animal Crossing: New Leaf has a 89%/11% Everyone/Gamers split and an 88%/12% Casual/Intense split. But the possibility of games that split the wickets, as it were, are intriguing, and simply that Nintendo’s model employs two axes rather than just one is probably significant.

    Unfortunately you can’t use these values as criteria for searching the store. I did a search for ‘Pokemon’, which returns a lot of games from the series history. Every single title shook out at a pair of roughly 67%/33% left-right splits. There are no Tetris games – I think Tetris would have a great shot at confounding everything and returning an Intense/Everyone result.

    It’s somewhat mysterious data because for many games it’s so often both easy to predict the splits and yet hard to explain why you can. It prompts from the to some complex heuristics: it’s not just a question of a game’s content but how users perceive it, how they parse the questions, maybe even what they’re trying to communicate to other users through their answers. Which feeds back into the identity stuff.

  9. I’ve recently been thinking about the problem of literacy in games, while trying (with varying degrees of success) to introduce my girlfriend to video games, and the 2 axes evaluation you mentioned seems a useful if basic way to frame the problem. We tried different methods of playing single player games together, mostly adventure and puzzle games, and one thing I consistently noticed was the small but frequent frustrations at being stuck not knowing what to do, and when I try to nudge her in the right direction, she sometimes feels inadequate for not being able to see the solution. She still seems to enjoy playing, but I feel that little bit of frustration when she asks for help.

    I also struggled to frame the problem, until I stumbled on an older video by the YouTube channel Extra Creditz on game literacy. In hindsight, it’s very obvious, but I somehow never thought of the problem in those terms. And when I talked about it with my girlfriend, it was clear that – leaving aside the rare cases of raw execution – the problem was parsing the grammar of each game when you don’t have the tools to do so, or rather you don’t have the experiential background to “see” instinctively possible interactions.

    The idea of game literacy also made me rethink about how “elegance” in game design (as opposed to design in general) is possible mainly because there’s a stratified lexicon across genres to appropriate. I know that a red barrel explodes if hit, whether I’m in a shooter, a platformer or a character action game; you can hardly say the same thing of someone who hasn’t been playing videogames for the better part of the last three decades.

    All this long preamble to say: maybe on the side of identity politics there is a place for the hardcore/casual distinction if framed through the lens of literacy. The gamers/everyone divide could be interpreted as an index of “literacy floor”, while the casual/intense could remain tied to skill as execution. I’m still wary – as you said, “casual” hasn’t yet been reappropriated – but maybe there’s something useful in there.


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