Electron Dance
6Sep/2030

Discussion: Towers

Welcome to the woefully late August newsletter (sign up if you want to read it):

During the halcyon days of FPS mods, not a week seemed to go by without someone showing off a cool gun render. That was the most boring thing about a mod I could imagine. I understood it was helpful to distance themselves from the source material but a hunger for weapon renders, particularly the more realistic, was baffling.

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  1. Yes, this sprawling mess of a newsletter has made it to your inboxes at last. Being “school’s back” week made the protracted indecision over whether I was happy with the topic and argument even longer.

  2. This is one of my favorite pieces from your pen.

  3. It is a shame that the game industry has devoted itself to iterating versions of DOOM instead of iterating versions of Parappa The Rapper. What if instead of “war crimes” videogames were about “work rhymes”?

  4. I don’t have a whole lot to say except “yes”. Raised in the UK, it’s very easy to think of all history from about 1800 to 1950 being a big ol’ play with Britain as the protagonist. And by that logic, it is only just and right that Britain got bigger and better and oh look what a lovely enlightened country we have now with computers and everything. I think this is not helped by the fact that it is very easy (rightly so) to spin WW2 as a good guy/bad guy conflict: although the moral clarity of that war was pretty pronounced, I think it gave me the impression that Britain *only* waged war for just reasons. See also “We have to defend the British people living in the Falklands” with little regard for a longer historical context, and “We have to go into the Middle East to restore order” when the opposite has been proven to be the outcome.

    I played the demo for Crying Suns today, and found myself refreshingly pleased at playing an admiral in a militaristic, heavy-handed space empire. Yes I’m part of a horrible social system, but at least the game makes that pretty clear up front. It doesn’t try to justify it and pull the wool over my eyes by wheeling out the space emperor and saying we’re “killing terrorists, not freedom fighters, and doing this for the good of the American people” *ahem* There’s something freeing about a game just being honest about the fact that you are probably not playing a good person, and your actions may not be morally justifiable.

    I continue to be disturbed by the myth-making present at all levels of society regarding preserving the status quo (especially its violence), and I’m rather dismayed that my medium of choice is one of the worst offenders. But hey ho, that just means developers should jump on in and create works that offer another narrative. Meatpunks anyone?

  5. NB as a blow against war crimes I have advocated for a game which has a character called Mooselini

    at one point I thought “well perhaps game developers from other countries don’t really have the same associations with World War II” and then I was like “wait”

  6. @Matt: Speaking of war crimes, those puns!

    @HM: I’ve been feeling this unease for a very long while now. I first noticed it when the “collateral murder” video was published by wikileaks, and the similarities with Modern Warfare’s gunship level were disturbingly obvious. About two or three years ago I declared to myself that I would no longer play games about guns, where shooting was the primary system. Even though I enjoy the real-time spatial puzzle aspect of them, I couldn’t keep dissociating that from the real-world systems of guns.

    It hasn’t had a radical impact on the games I end up playing, because I’ve had so little energy for games in the last couple of years. And I made a few exceptions to the rule, some worthwhile, some (Control, ugh) unfortunately not. Still, I think it’s been a good rule for me, when deciding whether or not to buy a game I’m vaguely interested in.

  7. “Hate the gunplot, embrace the gunplay.”

    I’m having this type of problem with my current project – I mean it’s not a problem unless I think about it, but I do like to think about things. A major part of it is COMBAT, not because I want to explore any themes of violence when I think about what themes I want to explore, but because of the systemic affordances of combat, the dynamics that all come neatly wrapped up for me by a history of design under the label of “combat”. The stuff I design is abstractified and pixelated and gore-less, faceless, but it feels hard to detangle the idea of a murder simulator from its modern-day descendants. Even stylized combat rarely eschews the trappings of violence.

  8. I did write my personal feelings about it… it’s a bit long, so no worries if you don’t read it: https://medium.com/@oliverblueberry/quake-review-6832769e39c2

    (tl;dr: i love 3d spaces, i’m sad shooting is the default for so many games)

    That was a couple years ago. Now, I make Quake maps myself. The biggest overarching theme of my maps is… no violence. Sure, sometimes there’s monsters, sometimes you need to shoot a switch, but there is no need for killing. I intend to keep it that way. I’m kinda hoping to make a little dent in the Quake mapping community, if I’m going to be quite honest.

    I’m very sensitive, and killing anything human-like weirds me out. I abhor military shooters for many reasons, including the history-biased things you talked about. This is especially true because I’m American.

    I despise Nazis, but I can’t even bring myself to play Wolfenstein 3-D )O:

  9. Arcade Idea

    Thank you, AI :D

    Matt

    I am sad to say that I have never played PaRappa The Rapper. I understand it was a big hit with the kids. Twenty years ago. But I suspect you are only two more comments away from a thread derail. For God’s sake, everyone, strap yourselves down!

    James

    I don’t know how I can trust you anymore after a fully blooded comment which starts out with “I don’t have a whole lot to say” :)

    I think it’s an interesting point that WW2 is one of those few “good wars” which has unfortunately been used as moral cover for everything else we’ve done. The way many of these historic houses are covered by the National Trust and other similar organisations is to portray the historical characters in the very best light. And in some ways, if we present these figures as benign, curious characters, who collected objects from around the world and raised the game of science “single-handedly” – well, those aren’t bad role models. But Britain cannot understand the way it is seen abroad in certain quarters; it’s brutal history is a lot more real and present. Johnson reciting The Road to Mandalay in Burma being a standout example.

    I was also wondering about whether there’s a contradiction here between this piece and my criticism of the BLM-related attempts to tear down some UK statues. I think the two positions are compatible. The focus on the statues was a tactical error in a longer game; I had no problems with the concept of removal. Plus I don’t think anyone is really taking many history lessons from these statues although they do, obviously, have their part to play in the British self-image.

    Andy

    Good for you, for retreating from those games. I’ve been able to keep telling myself “they’re just videogames” for a while but if they hadn’t been determined to make them so realistic and the storylines so serious, I wouldn’t be in this position. Like as James says above, playing a game where you’re cast as a bad guy doesn’t have the same problems. It’s when you’re “good” is where everything goes horribly awry…

    droqen

    Hello droqen! I don’t want big budget games to be allowed to dump the same moral quandry on the laps of simpler pixel fighting games. I’m playing through Serious Sam 2 at the moment and it’s diverting and also very stupid; it plays to the hero trope but there’s not a bone of actual seriousness in it’s body. I’m pretty comfortable with it just as I am with Quake.

    That doesn’t mean pixel games can’t give us moral pause: the RPGMaker jam game Dungeoneer: A Beautiful Escape is one of the more disturbing things I’ve played and it is not alone by any stretch.

    Now, Mortal Kombat… Jesus, I really don’t know what to think there.

    Daniel

    Oh no, did you have to remind me of Wolfenstein!?!? I had been looking forward to the new ones and bought copies of them this year. Now I’m wondering how I’ll feel about it when I play… if I play…

    I did read your piece – it wasn’t as long as you implied! – I have a feeling you should look into making Thief maps which are strictly non-violent. That is one of the things I always loved about Thief, such wonderful spaces to explore, full of tension, where you’re not really supposed to kill everything dead. (I may have been a bit liberal with my blackjack, though. Sorry.)

  10. Wait, you don’t want me to derail this thread?

    I haven’t played PaRappa the Rapper either, it’s just the only game I could think of that fit the joke. And, well, it is a nonviolent game about everyday activities.

    Anyway, no need to derail, as this feeds directly into my thing about reskinning mechanics to make them nonviolent, which is surely burned permanently into your brown, but for those who are just coming in:

    Roguelike/RPG: Game about getting out the vote in elections. You go around persuading people to vote for your candidate, and as you persuade them they may deplete your morale (hit points) which you gradually regain when not persuading (this mechanic makes more sense here than depleting/regenerating HP in combat). Different weapons=different argumentative strategies. You can call back into HQ for special argument strategies in different scenarios, though how often you can do that is limited by your cell phone data plan. (Data plan = mana, special strategies = spells.) Persuading more voters/defeating more monsters is beneficial not because you’re grinding for XP, but because you want to persuade more voters. Voters sometimes suggest new lines of argument or donate to the campaign, which again makes more sense than RPG monsters death dropping equipment and gold.

    Tower defense: Advertising. Lay out your advertisements (towers) so consumers (bugs) passing through the mall among preset paths become customers. I’m not going to go into much detail here because I don’t hardly play tower defense, but once again the mechanic where persuading a person gets you money to spend on upgrades makes more sense than the Tower Defense equivalent.

    Cover shooter: paparazzi game. Instead of hiding out to shoot mooks, hide out to photograph celebrities without getting bum-rushed by their bodyguards. Joel used to compulsively close the comments whenever I brought this up, but there’s all sorts of upgrades you can get (flash, aim, etc.), ONCE AGAIN the mechanism where a successful shot gets you money for upgrades makes more sense than in the violent version, the scantily clad women and improbably buff men also make more sense than in the violent version, and in the tutorial you learn how to do head shots.

    …these ideas are totally free for anyone to use on the off-chance anyone wants to, though they all seem far too wordy to suit droqen’s purposes for example. I’m like Peter Molyneux in that my medium is grandiose ideas that never come to fruition, but I give you the ideas uncut, without trying to make anyone play related software.

    One thing about this is that the paparazzi game doesn’t really seem to capture what Joel said about shooters appealing because they’re about cleaning things up. In the paparazzi game the celebs don’t go away when you shoot them (well I guess they might!) And there’s something about the physicality of videogame violence that maybe appeals–you fire your rocket launcher and you have a dramatic effect on the world, not so much when you’re taking a photograph.

    I never tried to deviolentify platormers, which is the action genre I play most, because platformers often don’t make you hurt anything. But the thing about having an effect on the world reminds me of a difference between Dustforce and Celeste. Celeste makes you do a lot of precision things and kills you over and over, Dustforce is often relatively chill at least in the early levels, but if you want to unlock levels in Dustforce you have to do near-perfect runs and that’s tough for me because “fail to hit this button at the right time and you fall in a pit and restart at the beginning of the screen” is much crisper and immediate feedback than “fail to hit this button at the right time and you have to scramble to get back up to the next ledge or your score multiplier will drop off and you have to restart if you’re trying to get the S grade you need for the next unlock.” Not to mention “You fall in a pit and then you have to manually restart the whole level because a single failure will torch your finesse grade.” Plus the combat-like parts of the game didn’t have the visceral thrill of catching a refresh orb and jetting again (there are some refresh-orb-like bits but the maneuvering is more awkward, and there’s this completely bizarre thing where there are characters whose capabilities are subtly different but it’s never explained how?)

    It’s like: when I’m doing Celeste I feel like I’m doing complicated aerial ballet because the game is pushing back at me. Dustforce has me doing ballet sometimes, but sometimes it feels like I’m doing something similar but the game isn’t pushing back. And it’s harder to do the ballet without a partner!

    I don’t know whether that’s really relevant to the main point.

    Daniel, one thing about your observation about DOOM is that I really wonder why more games don’t have you fighting bugs and robots. One thing about the opponents in these games is that they are in fact controlled by computers and not very intelligent! That’s why you can trick the Vek in Into The Breach into not attacking each other, whereas in FTL you wind up committing war crimes all over the place (refusing to accept someone’s surrender is a big no-no).

    NOW HOLD ON JUST ONE SECOND

  11. If you’re a developer, I think the best thing you can do with gunplots, if you’re going to have them, is firstly, transplant the setting. The Tom Clancy games attract criticism for variously offering his brand of ugly and divisive militaristic real world fantasism, or shearing it all out, leaving weird, violent, pseudo-sterilised games full of impossible-to-ignore real-world imagery such that the games end up more elephant than room.

    Then secondly, consider audience expectations and cut your fictive cloth accordingly. I’m not a fan of ‘smartdumb’ writing at all, but it certainly seems to have defanged the critical reception of games like Bulletstorm and Saint’s Row by signalling to reviewers that, hey, everyone’s here to have a good time, it’s ok to focus on the gunplay and not the gunplot, maybe leave that biting thinkpiece for some other sap.

    Or you can make a game where you shoot enemies acceptably removed from the discourse of problematics: robots, zombies, killer tomatoes etc. Although fantasy races created to serve this purpose of ‘disposable evil by author fiat’ are increasingly getting caught up in real world political analogism, so don’t be surprised if the shifting of said discourse swallows you up at some point down the line.

    (Sometimes I wonder if there’s a cultural reckoning on the cards for violence itself as a desirable aspect of gaming. My personal take is that games are agency and agency is gaming, so I see providing the option of non-violence as the preferable, additive approach. But.. shrugs.)

    Or you can make a game that is actually thoughtful about the relationship between player agency and violent gameplay, in the understanding that it’s necessarily going to get messy and you’ll end up with loose strings that critics will gleefully tug at. It still helps not to set your game in the ‘real’ world though, at least have one or two steps of remove. The examples Joel cites in the newsletter are apposite.

    And that’s all the weather!

  12. @Joel: I make no apologies for thinking I had nothing to say and then purging myself of 8 years of highschool history.

    I agree that the big problem with British exceptionalist narratives is just that they don’t give a damn about the other side’s point of view. It seems good and right that we won WW1 because, well, that war needed to end, right? And it was good and right that we were industrious (and industrial?) enough to go into Africa and take all those resources, and it sure felt good to explore new places (and then conquer them because why not) etc etc. Once you remove the other half of the story, it’s at your mercy. I don’t hate British history, or the people who participated in it – I think it’s much more interesting and useful to look at why they did those things, why most other European nations were also doing it, what kind of dynamics they were caught up in etc. The first step in understanding and growing from the past is, well, understanding it, which means neither excusing nor villifying the people in it. They were X people in Y situation which caused them to do Z thing.

    The question is, how do we construct society A where situation Y is a distant, unthinkable dream? And how to do we process the fact that, while we might like to think thing Z will never happen again, it did and we’re still benefiting from it?

    Totally agree that this tracks with your statue opinion. Taking down statues is a nice gesture, and it gets attention on the issue and shows others that it’s ok to be mad about this stuff, but structural change is a lot more than that. Of course, we can take down the statues anyway (probably should), but we can’t stop there.

    On violence in games: I’m intrigued by that mechanic where you *could* take the violent, easy option, but it will negatively affect the game world. Think lethality in Dishonored. It reminds me of Avatar: The Last Airbender, actually, in that violence and destruction are often options these characters could take, but they refuse to because they have principles – and it turns out that in the long run the least violent, most understanding choice tends to win out. (If there are fans reading, I’m thinking particularly of that episode where Aang starts to learn fire bending.)

  13. @James Patton, re: “I’m intrigued by that mechanic where you *could* take the violent, easy option, but it will negatively affect the game world.”
    This feels like a trap; the gunplot and gunplay are there, but you’re communicating that it’s wrong to engage with them. I mean, it’s a trap for a small-scale indie designer! Because it seems like a way to approach violence – have your cake and eat it too – but you delegitimize what might be the most fun way to play, and you have to design a whole new game system on the scale of completely replacing the gunplay.

    @matt w:
    These all sound like pretty exciting things to prototype! I have my concerns with longevity — ‘combat’ is something that narratively fits extremely well into any setting and lately I’ve been developing a sort of physical system that I’m really happy with and would gladly transplant into any game I make, in pretty much any setting. Violence is universal. Not so much paparazzi.

    I could definitely see a vote/advertising type thing working in a lot of settings though, a combat-replacement system that revolves around the idea of communicating in a single-minded way with other humans. But is it any better than violence, to boil down the idea of communication to belligerently arguing with other people until they give in and agree with you? That seems like a potentially extremely damaging perspective on the idea of how one interacts with other sentient beings.

    @Joel, @CA:
    Violence in a goofy lighthearted world that communicates the violence isn’t real and isn’t a big deal (cartoon violence?) is interesting. I wonder how that translates to the really abstract pixelated games I’m working on these days. Not really Serious Sam 2 or Saint’s Row, but such little representationality that maybe it’s easy not to even think about the violence as violence.

  14. @droqen: “But is it any better than violence, to boil down the idea of communication to belligerently arguing with other people until they give in and agree with you? That seems like a potentially extremely damaging perspective on the idea of how one interacts with other sentient beings.”

    That is indeed a problem I’ve had with these ideas! Back when I was vaporwaring the papparazzi game in detail I said “Looking back on this I haven’t actually succeeded in concepting a game where you don’t play a sociopath but at least this is actually a sociopathy that is sort of entertaining in the real world.”

    Which… maybe was not quite right. What I really want to say is, it is in fact much better than violence! I would much rather live in the world of papparazzi and advertising than a world of Nolan North going around murdering people willy-nilly, not that I mean to deny that that large-scale violence happens places, but where that happens it’s worse than advertising. But just because it’s not as bad as violence doesn’t mean it’s not very bad.

    I’ll defend the electioneering thing as a thing that actually does good in the world, sometimes this is just reminding/persuading people to do a thing that most of them want to do and that is good for them and others, but even so it and the capitalist system of advertising mean that we’re interacting with people in a way where we want one thing from them. Which I feel is (1) a huge problematic part of our modern condition and (2) hard to avoid in mechanics-based games [as opposed to writing-based games].

    About (1), with all the things we need to do and depend on others for, it’s hard and maybe not desirable to treat everyone we encounter in a non-transactional way. I want to be nice to the grocery checkout clerk, but fundamentally (I think) we both want to get the groceries paid for and in the bag, not to have a heartfelt conversation. The problem is devising systems where we without pouring all our emotional resources into our interactions with everyone, everyone is still treated humanely. And the system where we use advertising to herd people around like tower defense bugs is NOT IT.

    About (2), unless you have a lot of bespoke content in which people as individuals are expressing themselves, since the characters in games are going to be pretty simple mechanically, how can we interact with them in a way that isn’t manipulating them to do the thing you want them to do? I don’t know!

    So now that I think of it, probably the really good way to do the shooter game would be as nature photography. And I definitely see how none of these things would be likely to work with your system.

  15. @matt w:

    Lately my solution to (2), when I am genuinely trying to tackle it, is practically always bad game design. Low player agency that doesn’t let the player interact with the world in a reliably manipulative way. It usually makes for games that are not as fun to play as ones where my interactions and abilities are more powerful.

    I think I need to defend my “is it better than violence” comment just a bit more for posterity. Advertising is not as bad as murder, but assuming you have a life that – like my life – is free of experienced violence, this is contrasting a real thing that we experience daily vs an action-movie-videogame-fantasy thing. It’s not a particularly reasonable comparison. What does the action-movie-videogame-fantasy version of advertising look like in 5, 10 years, if somehow this genre takes root?

    A lineage of games that glorifies advertising to herd people around tower defense bugs seems incomparable to a lineage of games that glorifies a singular powerful individual murdering their way through a world for whatever justifications they carry.

    I want to say they exist in the same magnitude of corruption but I just said they’re incomparable so maybe I’ll just say I wish I could judge better but I suppose I can’t really quantify them relative to one another. I guess my conclusion is they’re very different things and perhaps it isn’t even meaningful to try & say that one is worse or better than the other.

    ~

    Making games about things that exist in the real world seems so dangerous, to me, because of what you bring up in your first paragraph. If it’s already something we accept, something that’s sort of entertaining in the real world, it seems as though glorifying it and making it fun will do so much more damage so quickly, vs. glorifying and making fun something that we unambiguously abhor in the real world, to the point where the parallels aren’t even immediately acknowledged.

    Maybe ‘cartoon sociopathy’ is more fine than when it’s realistic, too. [i.e https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartoon_violence%5D

  16. @droqen: yes, it’s true that this kind of design is often a trap, and falls easily into “oh silly player! Why did you perform an action that the game is clearly designed to support, but which I, the designer, personally take issue with?” Yikes. Yes, it has to be handled carefully.

    But I think it could be done extremely well if the person designing these mechanics *accepted that sometimes violence is an appropriate response*, but that it is one that usually has extreme effects which can often get out of hand. Did someone laugh at you? Killing them is not the appropriate response. But when a colonial power is besieging your capital so they can subjugate your people, export them as slaves and take your resources, that is an appropriate time to use violence. Which means the game would not have to be that rather dry, moralistic, dare I say Christian morality play of “Oh I know I shouldn’t use violence but it’s soooo teeeemptiiiiing!”, but rather the more complex question of “When is it appropriate to use violence, and when is it not? What kinds of violence are appropriate in which contexts? Is violence better when it is wielded by a state, or does that not make much difference? What are the knock-on causes of violence?”

    Regarding this discussion about paparazzi and advertising – hm, okay. Doesn’t anyone find it interesting that when asked to think up alternatives to the dehumanising, objectifying form of interaction that arises from mechanics of violence, matt thought up a bunch of OTHER mechanics that incidentally dehumanise and objectify the NPCs involved in them? Which is NOT me criticising Matt: I read them through and thought “yup, those sure sound great!” I think a lot of us are limited by our perspectives, and that’s just what happened here.

    I’m intrigued by other forms of gameplay though. Any of you know Brie Code, of Tru Luv games? She’s interested in Tend and Befriend mechanics: games about helping others and finding allies. I’m intrigued by the idea that there might be an entire ecosystem of game mechanics out there whose surface has barely been scratched. Games about growing things, nurturing comrades, building communities…

  17. I’ve not read all the comments yet!

    Always a treat seeing the latest ED newsletter drop in my inbox.

    I long for those long summers of my youth. I know the feeling. The Severn’droog’ (urgh) made me think of Clockwork Orange and ‘a bit of the old ultra-violence’. Little did I know that the newsletter would end up going in that direction.

    “The truth, of course, is that it is the same story.”

    This is a great line and I often wonder how much nuance and truth has been lost to the steamroller of time (driven by the victor’s historians).

    Oh man, virtual gun fetishism is the worst and it’s something I’m convinced sells certain games. I’d be interested to see how the sales of something like Call of Duty or Battlefield would fare if they started creating their own fictional weapons. And now I’m thinking of Konami’s old International Superstar Soccer and their made up player names and the FIFA fanboys at school giving me and my friends shit because it didn’t have ‘real players’. It was the better footy game though! :-D

    The closest I’ve got to getting ‘excited’ about real (or realistic) guns is in Hunt: Showdown because they’re all pretty much antiques, made of wood and polished metal with bolt action mechanisms and levers and hammers and intricate engravings.

    I think the last realistic man vs. man shooter I played was Spec Ops actually and I struggled with it, despite appreciating its intent somewhat. Doom Eternal, much like Serious Sam, leans on the hero trope and has seriously amped up and daft action, but unlike Doom (2016), whose Doomguy was hilariously irreverent at times, Doom Eternal is filled with Serious Story and proper nouns and stupid lore and it’s by far the worst thing about it. The gore and violence is nuts but I take it in the same way as, say, the movie Deathgasm.

    It pleases me greatly though that some of my favourite experiences in recent years have not even featured violence as a verb. I’m okay with violent videogames but, god, how I’ve wanted to see the medium well and truly shake that image off. We recently watched High Score on Netflix and the Mortal Kombat/Doom episodes were pretty amusing knowing I was one of the impressionable kids during those years, literally ripping and tearing before school.

    I got a good laugh out of that Theme Park of Perpetual Torment video btw.

    matt w: War rhymes. Nice. Haha–no way, the tower defence game I’ve had a similar idea to in the past, only, instead of ads drawing people in, I thought strategically placed annoying salesmen in the street repelling people into shops. This may be based on true events.

  18. Phew, there’s a lot of interesting chat in the comments. Let me just add a few random musings because that seems to be all I have time for (I was planning to write something else this week, but I’m really not doing well for time).

    Matt’s idea of reskinning combat is interesting but I think those those mechanics would have to suit the theme really well otherwise players will just see through it and will look like a joke (“it’s just shooting with a different name”). But then I think of the lengths that Calunio went to reskin combat as sex semi-successfully in Polymorphous Perversity. But go back in further and we had Sonic not beating the shit out of monsters, but freeing animals from robot prisons – every robot “popped” with a happy animal fleeing from their robotic remains.

    If we retain the shooting and just redirect it to non-humans there is the “orc” problem like CA suggests, where a race is defined by its genetic proclivity for evil. I like how ST:TNG were able to turn the Klingons from straight-up bad ‘uns into something a lot more complex – it wasn’t perfect, but I liked this rehabilitation of Evil Race into someting thoughtful. Blow up robots to free animals, that’s what I suggest.

    Indeed, cartoon violence is fine most of the time. Is Gang Beasts cartoon violence? If it isn’t – do we still think it’s a negative idea? Cinco Paus clearly implies some sort of violence but its simple animations and garish menagerie make you think more chess than violence. When you play chess, you’re obviously thinking more chess than violence there too. :)

    I think droqen hits the nail on the head with James’ idea of giving you negative feels for killing in the game. It is crazy to think that you’ll craft deep and engaging violent systems only to wag your fingers at players whenever they try to have fun with them; it’s a strange design decision. You feel far more powerful in Dishonored if you kill than if you don’t. Put the experiences side by side – stealth always feels scary and impotent. But this is partially a design decision to fix the Thief problem that discovery => murder => game over.

    You could still use bad ideas to teach lessons. Look at some of the satirical work that Will O’Neill has been up to. Guildmaster Story is an aggressive F2P game which is designed to mirror its content of skewering Silicon Valley capitalism and abuse of labor via the gig economy. He’s working on The Invisble Hand where you get to do insider trading – but I’m pretty sure Will’s goal is not about making insider trading sound cool but make it sound shady.

    Again, though, I am more worried by how we are overwhelmed with negative shooters – they dominate AAA. It’s not a single shooter that’s a problem but the fact they blot out the sky and have an outsized impact on videogame culture. I wouldn’t want to run them out of town – I don’t want to become prescriptive – but just have less of them.

    Perhaps part of the problem is that games are often positioned as “winning” or being “victorious” which draws naturally to themes where there are losers..?

  19. So I was thinking about how this idea of being surrounded by violent media, and how it extends beyond games to the likes of TV, films, even literature. And of course we get desensitised to it pretty quickly – whether that’s a good or a bad thing aside, it’s an important defence mechanism, otherwise it’d be impossible to switch on the telly without fear of being traumatised (I say this with the immense privilege of being someone for whom encountering violent media carries no risk of reliving personal experience).

    But what also occurs to me is that this desensitisation doesn’t happen evenly. Cartoon violence loses its capacity to upset reasonably quickly, but beyond that, while I can and have stomached some pretty face-value unpleasant violence in games, I can’t tolerate it at all in other media. For example, I like anime, in a self-loathing-weeaboo sort of way, but I can’t watch a lot of seinen stuff because of the propensity that sub-genre often has to indulge in violence and misanthropy. Closer to our own cultural shores, horror films are right out.

    Content-wise, the violence is no worse than in the games I’ve played, and you could make arguments about agency in gaming increasing the capacity for violence to disturb. But my brain contextualises these media differently, in that it barely even registers that potential to disturb when contemplating games, but becomes distressed even at the prospect of engaging with violence in other media.

  20. Good article, daniel, thanks for linking it!

    “A great game that fails spectacularly at this notion is Skyrim. (Spoiler alert) You essentially spend your time saving the world not only from dragons that slaughter people mercilessly, but from a dragon trying to end the world itself and destroy everything. How many thank-yous do you get? How many explicit exclamations of “YOU SAVED MY LIFE” do you hear in game? If you save an NPCs life, they just run away. Very rarely, and by that I mean one single NPC actually, will thank you for saving them – the traveling bard you see from time to time – and he does it in a kind of offhanded way – “Things got hairy back there.””

    A game that does a good job with this is Into the Breach. I mean, the broader storyline is pretty dark and not really very hopeful at all. But in the missions, when you save a building that’s about to be attacked by a kaiju, the people inside will react. ‘They saved us!’, ‘Oh, thank God!’ etc. It definitely gave me that dopamine by stealth feeling.

    I certainly agree that a lot of games (including RPGs such as Skyrim) go to huge trouble to set up contexts where the player could be given the satisfaction of actually feeling like they made a positive change, only to flub the results by not reflecting their actions in the world in even a trivial way. This can be accomplished even in frozen-in-aspic worlds such as MMOs: City of Heroes solved this decades ago, as the civilians would gossip to one another about your achievements as you passed them in the street.

    I do wish people would stop overusing ‘-punk’ as a generic suffix, though I don’t want this comment to veer too far into complaintpunk.

  21. (I should add that I agree with the commenter on the article, though, that the central thrust is a bit over-generalising. Lots of interesting points still made though)

  22. Oh ho, CA, you want to avoid derailing this thread? Buckle up, friend, because YOU HAVE UNLEASHED THE FRIGGING FURY. Well not really but I do have a little trouble with the idea of hopepunk partly because the name is cringe and partly because it seems a bit facile to me but mostly because I can’t think of it without thinking about how it was coined by someone who one day, for reasons best known to herself, decided to absolutely unload on Twitter on the subject of Beau Brummel in a thread whose first tweet ended “Thread af” and got more and more self-parodic from there. (https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1100074018458218497.html or search for “Beau fucking Brummel,” if I link this I will get spam filtered.)

    I honestly have an even worse derail in me but I am going to refrain from it for now. That is, save it for later. That is, leave it hanging over all your heads like, uh, some kind of nonviolent thing that nevertheless inconveniences you, to keep on the topic.

    I also have some on-topic thoughts! I’m not going to post most of them though. I will say, about the Unpacking game whose trailer they show, that unpacking from a move was one of the more prolonged unpleasant things that I’ve ever done (yes this is privileged, though I’ll say that I’ve had a couple of job hunts that earned both those adjectives as well)–it really had an extensive puzzle chain sort of thing where, for instance, the boxes of LPs couldn’t be unpacked until the shelf was assembled and put in place, the shelf needed to be put together on the floor and raised upright so that entire room had to be clear, and the things on the floor of that room went in a place that was occupied by boxes of LPs.

    So I’m not sure whether that game would be awfully traumatizing for me, or cathartic, along the lines of the comment that “I play video games to ESCAPE reality. I want to play out my wild fantasies, like my actions and choices making a genuine difference, being given a task and then completing that task, and waking up well rested.” (I believe this is the original of that much-ripped-off tweet!)

    The article mentions using music to cheer you on and that’s something A Monster’s Expedition does very well. Carl Muckenhoupt was just observing how pleasant the sounds you generated by moving are. I think that it probably doesn’t create hints in the way he’s half-suspecting, but rather that there some kinds of move that characteristically are challenging to set up and constitute progress (rolling a log without sending it into the water, e.g.) and that those have slightly more elaborate music cues that often harmonically resolve the notes that went before.

  23. Ooh I managed to put in three links without getting spam filtered. Now that’s hopepunk!

  24. Is this what Twitter is always like? It’s what I imagine Twitter is always like.

  25. I don’t really have a problem with violence in games or movies or books. Although I’m sure if we were part of a braver, stronger society, we probably wouldn’t have the same obsession with violence in our arts and crafts. Going back to the newsletter, its the insinuation that violence is the righteous answer to many a problem, an answer that requires no external validation. While I take it we could all do with a little positive feedback I’m not sure having villagers thank you for murdering Designated Bad Guys is actually a solution to this.

    Let’s just agree to not use the term Hopepunk otherwise I’ll just have to punk everything. And when you put games and punk together, you get gamespunk which is regrettable in a big way. The article has some nice ideas but they’re not brand new. Dropsy comes to mind. And I’m not sure we want to ghettoize the ideas with a category. Unfortunately, Electron Dance loves taxonomies as much as the next man. I’m hopeless.

    This isn’t Twitter because there weren’t enough discussions about why some people are bad.

    I’m watching John Wick 3 as I’m write this. This is a fact.

  26. Obviously as I’m write this.

  27. Ok, yeah, I totally went into the associative drift mode that got me through all those seminars that I was always under-prepared for, and ended up at ‘better ways to violence’ when ‘better ways not to violence’ was originally under the microscope.

    Gamespunk made me laugh a lot. Trademark it and sell it to an energy drinks company?

    You are among friends here Joel; I’m find myself write this a lot.

  28. “I’m watching John Wick 3”

    Oh no.

    @daniel: that’s quite an interesting article although I’m not sure I personally need that kind of support or patting on the head! I think I’d find it insufferable, although like CA said: Into the Breach does a nice job of having that same effect without it feeling forced or unnatural. At least with Lost & Hound you play as a Good Boy so that kind of makes sense.

    I will say that when it comes to tapping into those same pleasure centres, minus the violence, you only need to look at the big trends in the last 10 years or so. Exploration, mining, construction, crafting, logistics and farming are hugely popular these days. Granted, they’re often set alongside violence but there’s no denying just how much of a draw they are for a lot of people.


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