Torment: Tides of Numenera

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(Here be Spoilers)

Almost two years ago, just after finishing Pillars of Eternity (and its XP-less combat system) for the first time, I remember myself musing over the necessity of combat in cRPGs. For a long time I’ve considered combat to be one of the four main pillars of the genre, along with exploration, story, and character development. Pillars, by removing the XP reward factor (though not the treasure one) from the equation, gave us a glimpse of how one of these four pillars could be diminished without any impact on the whole structure’s stability. Torment: Tides of Numenera (T:TON from now on), the spiritual successor of 1999’s mythic Planescape Torment, takes a grand leap towards this direction, presenting us with a minimal amount of mandatory battles.

Let’s get some things out of the way: The game’s graphics are masterfully designed and materialised, full of wonder and a semi-scifi, semi-exotic-fantasy look. The Mere’s screen paintings are gorgeous. Those into isometric cRPGs will adore T:TON’s visual part, and at the end of the day this is what really matters, for this a game for them(us). The same goes for music amd sound, which nicely and very discreetly frame the environment. Voice acting is scarce, a thing about which I couldn’t care less.

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One of the Mere screens. The Meres are an innovative idea (perhaps implemented somewhat hastily), which are underlined by the question: If you had the power to alter another being’s life course without permission or knowledge, would you do it?

Concerning combat: It is easily avoided in most cases. The inclusion of combat in the super-category of Crisis tones down the former’s importance – it seems that RPGs can do away with it, though their image afterwards may well be different from what we now have in mind as virtual RPGs. Crises are situations which can be resolved by force, but also in one or several other ways. In general they require a bit of thinking, them being organized more as riddles and less as clickfests or optimization/micromanagement challenges (i.e. see the adventuresque Sticha lair). Each one is more or less carefully designed, far away from a random-encounter logic.

A brief look on some things that bothered me:

-There are secret timers on a few quests, which timers are tied to the party rest count (this could be considered an asset for a lot of people, and it does make the game world more realistic – though there is a journal bug for failed quests of this type).

-Its short duration (T:TON took me roughly 31 hours to finish on the first playthrough, without any walkthrough, and completing all the quests I could find. Several of the areas are underdeveloped, especially on the later half of the game – the Maze being one of them).

-Not being able to return to previous areas and deal with any unfinished quests.

-Several minor bugs.

-A game engine thing: when the camera is at a place of an area far from your party (and the PCs do not appear on the camera) and you click so as it starts moving towards this area, the camera forcibly resets back to the party.

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One of the Bloom’s Maws, a definite homage to Sigil’s portals

Moving on to the juiciest aspects of the game, I must stress here that T:TON is not a game for people who do not like reading (in games or otherwise). There are many thousand dialogue lines in here, with the word count reaching a whopping 800.000. If at some point you feel that you cannot read more, then don’t; better save and quit til your mind is clear (speaking from personal experience I wasted several conversations this way – on the bright side, more things to read on the second playthrough). Reading is the single most important player activity in T:TON – if you remove the dialogues from the game you’ll be left with a grotesque monstrosity, an incoherent collection of lovely graphics and slightly underdeveloped mechanics.

Protagonist-wise the story has a definite Gnostic hue. The whole Changing God and Castoffs plot is a catalyst for questions you may already have asked and dilemmas you may have faced if you ever had a brush with the occult idea of humans being the cells or experience accumulators or sensory organs of the Divine. In what ways can one’s individuality and the value of it be compared with that of a greater whole? Can a cell rebel against the organism it is part of? Is the modern human able to change his perception focus from the scale of person to another grander or more diminutive scale? There is much food for thought and contemplation in here, theological-, occult-, and social-wise.

Still, T:TON’s story is less about the protagonist (and this is why I can accept the almost complete absence of character creation cosmetic options – you only select the gender), and more about fragments of other characters’ (NPCs’) stories. The game is a Sensate’s (I could not resist including an obvious reference to my favourite Planescape faction) paradise, with tidbits all around to taste and immerse yourself in. It is like being thrown in the midst of an immensely varied banquet of lives and experiences, which you can sample. One could say that the Protagonist/Player is an Interface; this actually leads to the interesting thought that this may be what a being a god feels like – being an interface for a multitude of lives, fragments of which stay and are lived through you. A few such stories that particularly impressed and will stay with me are those concerning:

-A man who apprentices his young self.

-A special kind of adoption, in which the foster parents adopt children born centuries ago, reaching the current era through time portals.

-A vehicle that crashed years ago, the guilt-ridden AI of which keeps alive the memory of the passengers that died in the crash by projecting holograms of them.

-Rhin.

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Sagus Cliffs, a city that will probably stay with me in almost the same way Sigil did

As in the original Torment, Numenera is characterized by the absence of an area with the essence of “home-base” throughout the game. Sagus cliffs serve as a sort of home town (or rather as the Only town, as Sigil was in PT’s first chapters, since the whole of the first part takes place in it (starting area aside)) but after leaving it there is no going back. This is true for almost all areas (apart from the Maze) – they are like beads on a string: once you pass one you cannot return. The Maze is a kind of home, you can visit it somewhat voluntarily, but it is not a place you can share with your companions (thus camaraderie is lost), and it also is never completely safe in the sense of the explored, mapped, and devoid of menace. This linear approach, akin to that of a strict narrative, deprives you of experiencing a place a-temporally, of having a city as home – for home is strongly characterized by its always being there, of being able to return to it, of never abandoning you, despite what you do. It would be nice to be able to see the consequences of your actions shaping a place, and not just see some old faces appear in new spaces.

In the end T:TON is a sprawling modular interactive narrative, a rough glimpse towards a possibility of what a combat-less cRPG could look like. I say rough because non-combat challenges could definitely be more challenging and not just depended on trivialized character skill checks; more challenge for the player (and not the characters) would be welcome. Where T:TON really shines is not in the framework but in the content department. This is a game to make you dream about its world and denizens, an artistic creation whose stories you may revisit in reveries, an entity that sows delicious seeds. A journey which may bring tears in your eyes and goosebumps on your skin, just as Planescape Torment did. From this point of view, Numenera is a worthy successor to what is one the most acclaimed RPGs of all times – though it would be best to let it carve a place of its own.

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Meta-thinking in cRPGs – part 2

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Part 1

Categories and Forms of Meta-thinking in cRPG’s

Meta-thinking, however subtle it may be, can be traced to several parts (in varying degrees of intensity) of a cRPG, some of which are mentioned and discussed below. This is definitely not an exhausting list of “all things meta-thinking,” but rather a quick glance upon the subject.

The options menu, especially the game preferences one, is occasionally a source of meta-thinking pollution. In it the Player, as a divine entity, can sometimes choose the difficulty level of the challenges presented to him. In fact, even from the keyboard configuration one’s experience can be “polluted” by meta-thinking viruses; the existence of a key for jump or crawl can make the player change his mental image of the game, even before he starts it, sculpting it according to other similar games with which he has past experience. If for instance there is no key assigned to jumping, one may well deduce that the game is more on the tactical side of the spectrum rather than the action one, having in his mind associated jumping with more action-oriented RPGs.

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The existence of Jump, Sprint, & Sneak keys in Skyrim may well make the Player suspect the existence of an action element in the game

 

-Meta-thinking and achievements.

Since the arrival of platforms such as Steam, achievements have been a large part of the gaming experience (though they were certainly in existence before), and one more lens through which we see games and through which our experience of the game is shaped. The description of them – for some of them visible to the player before their objective is achieved – provides knowledge about the game, which otherwise would not be accessible. Reading, for example, that one must kill a certain amount of creatures to gain a certain achievement bestows a sort of quest that comes from outside of the game world, and creates a need in the player’s mind which may influence one’s in-game actions (one may adopt a more violent attitude towards the game world and its denizens for instance). Also, the Player is informed of the existence of a number of creatures of that type in the game-world, at least equal to the achievement’s one. Another example: if there is a yet unachieved achievement that says “discover 70 locations of interest,” one’s attitude towards game space is different from when no concrete number is present, leading to continuous scrutiny of the environment, backtracking, a holistic approach to the game regions, in which these locations may be, etc. One final example: Legend of Grimrock 2 has an achievement that reads: “Kill a monster with a single blow.” This may push the Player towards min-maxing, in order to maximize the damage output, or it can lead him to backtrack later on to starter levels, in which weak monsters will be accessible.

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The Legend of Grimrock 2 Steam achievements inform us of the existence of armour sets, as well as of certain enemies, even before the game begins

 

-The stats of character creation, of classes and races, create in-game stereotypical opinions in the player, meta-thinking ones, since if they existed not, and only a flavour description was provided, the player would have to find out in-game what are the characteristics of each professional and especially racial aspect, and then only in a vaguely qualitative way in the case of not overtly apparent statistics. Character creation is, in a nutshell, Player shaping all aspects of the Character, in a lesser or greater degree, depending upon the weight of randomness. Moreover, the compartmentalization of a being in a set of stats is an approach that breaks it down to measurable parts, usually with no interaction among themselves, leading to our apprehension of it as a mechanical set of functions and numbers, as a table and not as a whole being per se. This is not a schizoanalytical (according to Deleuze and Guattari) approach that goes contrary to the illusionary unity of consciousness, striving towards constant transformation through the conjunctive synthesis, since we are not talking about a fluid entity. It’s not even an individuating (according to Jung) approach, but rather, it is pure mechanical rationalism, the attempt of total enumeration of a being’s aspects.

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Character Class (races are part of them) description in the manual of Realms of Arkania 3. The stat requirements, as well as the descriptions shape the Player’s image of them, creating stereotypes

Let’s see two typical, indicative stereotypes that are created through race and class descriptions and statistics, both in table-top and virtual sub-genres. Humans are the great adventurers, those that, due to their short life-spans are the most restless spirits, the balanced-out race (or rather the most basic one, variations on which are the other ones), the jacks of all trades one could say, usually being eligible for all sorts of career activities. This anthropocentrism goes back to the first tabletop RPGs, and though it seems logical on a surface level, it conceals some layers of depreciation of the Other or at the very least trying to make up for the supposed advantages of the Other in comparison to the self, by creating irrational privileges (in earlier D&D versions, as well as in several PC-Games directly or indirectly influenced by them, we humans can be whatever class we want, since we are disadvantaged in comparison to the other races). It is an interesting and not so innocent division between “us” and “them”, which has some psychological and social ramifications that are beyond the scope of this text. But as far as the Player’s gaze upon the world is concerned it surely is affected, especially if these stereotypes are reinforced by NPC behaviour. As far as class is concerned, fighters, for example, are usually stat-wise more physique-oriented, less intelligent (thus more easily manipulated than say such mental powerhouses such as wizards) and are even considered the worst party member to be in charge as far as dialogue options are concerned. To cut a long story short, the Player knows vaguely what to expect from certain NPCs’ behaviour due to this meta-knowledge about races and/or classes which is acquired through both previously played games and fantasy genre in general, as well as through something as seemingly innocent as the statistics of the character creation. Even space is not untouched by this, since, for example, a forest settlement of dwarves may be considered something of a paradox by a Player, worthy of closer attention and scrutiny rather than what would be turned towards an elven settlement on the same spot.

-Meta-thinking in game geography/topography.

In dungeons, and buildings in general, via mapping help, one can hypothetize about the existence of secret rooms, corridors, etc. This is an activity that can be performed by an on-spot person in the real world, so this cannot be said to constitute a meta-gaming action. Meta-gaming is more evident in how the player perceives and thinks about towns, villages, and the whole positioning of points of interest on the world map, the assumptions he makes about them (see the above example of the dwarven forest settlement). A good example concerning the points of interest is the visibility on the map of the quest goal, something of a default feature nowadays in the vast majority of cRPGs. This, as well as the separation of doors-of-interest in a city from decorative ones (namely clickable/interactable from unclickable/uninteractable ones), creates a world in which places fall qualitatively in two categories: utility and décor, a thing not really applicable to a real world, at the very least as far as the totality of highlighting via key pressing is concerned. Moreover, in games implementing level-dependent enemies one can wander wherever he wants without much fear, but in non-level-dependent enemies games, one is bound to be cautious to where he ventures. In the latter type of game, distance usually equals to danger, at least until the end-game. Relative to this, content gating*, both soft and hard, and the acknowledgement of it, shape the Player’s (hence the Character’s also) image of the game-world geography, though neither is a blatant meta-thinking feature if it is cleverly implemented (roads can be closed and ship routes may well be unavailable for transportation to an island).

*Content gating is the demarcation of a game area or areas, and the exclusion of the Character from these areas until some condition is met – a certain Character level, the completion of a quest, etc. In soft gating the area restriction is enforced rather subtly through impossible-difficulty monsters, but the Character can access the area in question, though it usually is fatal to do so. In hard gating the area is completely off-limits, usually navigationally (closed roads, unavailability of ships for naval transportation, etc).

-Meta-thinking and experience-point-based or skill-based character advancement.

Knowing that a game’s character advancement is skill-based instead of experience-point-based can lead to a pretty different gameplay, either more obsessive and repetitive, non-linear, or more focused on a certain type of activity than others. For example, in Elder Scrolls, up to Oblivion, character advancement was tied to the major and minor character class skills, thus it was obvious that you had to engage in activity that honed these skills. If the Player knew that the Elder Scrolls were experience-point-based instead, then her activity could well be different. The same point can certainly be made in cases of experience-point-based character advancement, if one contrasts games with XP rewards from combat, and those that reward only quest completion and other activities, just like in Pillars of Eternity.

-In game worlds where resurrection is possible, taking advantage of this resurrection fact (for instance keep on fighting though it is evident that at least one party member will certainly die) lies in a shadowy border between meta- and normal-thinking. It all boils down to the supposed attitude of the Character’s personality and attitude towards death, dying, and what it is to undergo such an experience (what is known about afterlife, how well established it is, etc), the communal bonds between the party, etc.

-Quests that are failed or are unobtainable add to a game’s replayability, but, via meta-thinking, trim the sense of a player’s completion of the game, if the case is that you cannot complete all quests in a single playthrough. What this means is, that from the point of view of an entity inside the world, the possibility of leaving some things to lie undiscovered or uncompleted is absolutely acceptable and realistic (one cannot know the Whole of the world), but from a certain player’s standpoint (namely shifting of point of view from character to player mentality), it is somewhat unfair of the game, to not providing this opportunity. And let’s also be realistic: a second playthrough of a 40-60 hours game is beyond the reach of a respectable portion of the player population, especially if it means seeing just a bunch of different quests.

-Meta-thinking in game economy.

In cRPGs which implement shopkeepers with a finite amount of money it is customary for the Player to be able to see the remaining amount, something obviously not usually happening in real-world situations. Beyond that, the fact that merchants will gladly accept any quantity of relevant to their trade items, restricted only by their purse (if they have a finite amount of gold), is certainly non-realistic. If one did not have previous knowledge from other games, the looting upon looting of enemy armours and weapons (carrying limits permitting) would probably be considered illogical, since how many of these items would a merchant buy?

-Finally, MMORPG instances are among the most extreme meta-thinking examples, for they demand of the Players to repeatedly try the challenges contained therein until they manage, through successive Character deaths and the knowledge they acquire from them, to rise to the ability level of being able to surpass these challenges. And more so, after the challenge completion, the Players are able to return and repeat the same dungeon/instance (hence the instance characterization). In essentia, a kind of reincarnation is implemented in the challenge mechanics, demanding, as a sort of popularized eastern philosophy, the return of the being(s) again and again, until they hone their abilities to such a degree that they are able to break through this mandatory reincarnation cycle and claim the spoils of ordeal.

Meta-thinking in cRPGs – part 1

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Part 1: Introduction, definitions, the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, the Player as the meta-thinking accumulator of knowledge, & min-maxers as modernity incarnated

Terminology:

       Player: The real-world aspect of a person playing a game

       Character: The Player’s in-game representation

       Meta-thinking: Thinking about the game as a Player, not as a Character


Introduction

In Age of Decadence [1], a 2015 RPG, before you even create your character, you are informed by the game itself, that “it is a very different game from what you are used to. Its world is hard and unforgiving, and it really doesn’t take much to end up dead. In fact, it’s painfully easy[to die], especially if you try to play the game the way you normally play RPGs, when you role-play Superman, able to handle any challenge and smite evildoers by the dozens.” This portion of the whole statement (which is quite interesting in its entirety as an object of analysis) makes certain suppositions, namely that:
1. The player is used to a certain type of computer role-playing games, all of which are very different from AoD.
2. Those games feature worlds that are not hard and unforgiving, in contrast to that of AoD.
3. In the other games it is not easy for the Character to die.
4. There is a certain way to play those other RPGs, and their players follow this way of playing. This way of playing, however, is not further analyzed in the statement, though it is implied in the assumption that in all other RPGs you role-play something akin to Superman, namely a character extremely more powerful than all the others in the world, that overcomes both challenges and enemies without breaking a sweat.
5. In other games you fight and slay evildoers, creatures that engage in evil acts.

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Those assumptions/suppositions suggest a certain level of elitism on the writer’s side, as well as a sense of scorn for “nowadays RPGs”. Elitism is evident as the writer groups indiscriminately all modern RPGs in a category which he endows with a host of general characteristics that are obviously repellent to him, and though they are only implied, are assumed to be common knowledge for RPG players. Beyond stuffing all modern RPGs in a category, the writer assumes that the players of those games are forced to a certain way of playing them, implying that there is no other way for them to be played (though the way is not made explicit beyond the vaguest references and allusions), that their easiness is so compelling that players are helpless to resist this unspecified mode of going through the game world.

There is much to be criticised about this stance, but such a thing is beyond the scope of this text. What I want to accentuate here is the fact that the game recognizes and directly addresses the player as a gamer, as a person that has played other RPGs, and beyond that, it explicitly recognizes the existence of a universe of other games (the meta-game) and elaborates on it, a thing going contrary to what more other RPGs try to avoid, namely the breaking of player immersion via direct reference to his Player ontological status.

Beyond that, as it becomes evident during play, AoD requires the player to proceed through the game as a meta-gaming entity, namely, it is almost mandatory for the player to know beforehand what choices to make as far as both stat/skill point distribution and dialogue choices are concerned. In order to have this knowledge, the player must either use a large number of save files, or restart the game a number of times, so as to know what to expect, and what are the viable choices she can make. It is a (from first-hand experience) fact that if you don’t make the right point distribution in skills you can easily face dead-end situations (combat and other skill checks that are impossible to beat), not only during the first part of the game, but also much later on, in which case you either load a much older save and replay a large part of the game with a more optimized build, or you just restart. If one does not want to frequently reload/restart, he is forced with two options: either check a walkthrough guide, or use cheating. The game’s structure is such that it leaves no space (apart from improbable luck) for not using a meta-gaming tool: the save/load/restart routine, the out-of-game walkthrough, and/or a trainer hack. One may argue that the save/load/restart routine is an in-game feature, but that does not prevent it from being a meta-gaming tool when it is used as a mandatory-for-overcoming-challenges one. More will be written later on the status of the save/load/restart mechanisms.

Meta-thinking and RPGs

Meta-thinking in RPGs, in the context of this text, is the thinking «outside the game world frame” of the person who plays the game, namely thinking as a Player and not as an internal part of the game world, as a Character. I will briefly elaborate on the impossibility (at least for the moment) of tautological (on an ontological level) identification between Player and Character (which differs from what is referred to as total immersion in Brown & Cairns or spatial presence in Wirth et.al., as will be discussed below).

If, hypothetically, one was completely identified with his in-game representation, then some things are to be mentioned, depending on the game world’s universal (physical, social, mental, etc) laws:
-If the game world was presupposed as being a world in which some general facts of our reality were also dominant there (namely the irreversible existence of consequences for an act, them being legal repercussions (incarceration, execution), social (isolation, scorn), emotional, physical, mental, and so on) then if the Player was completely identified with the Character, he would experience this kind of gaming as a real-life activity that would create in him the same reactions and thoughts, in the same degree, as if he experienced the in-game situations in our world – anxiety, real fear, major excitement, etc. In fact, it would not be trivial for someone to choose to start playing, having in mind the experience-to-come, as well as the possible (real-life to him) consequences.
-If, on the other hand, the game world was ruled by other laws of cause and effect, or not ruled by them at all, then the completely identified player would have to undergo a radical change of mind in order to be totally immersed in it, accepting the reality of totally alien cosmological laws.

In either case, the Player would have to forget the existence of the real world (and consequently its rules, if they were not similar to our own world’s), or at least to push it back to an imaginary domain, accepting the reality of the game world and also, in the second case, its different set of natural and social rules as real. Once in the game, the mindset would be perhaps akin to that of dreaming, if total identification is to be expected. Like in dreaming, one could sometimes be vaguely aware that this world/reality is not the real one, but in most cases this feeling would be hidden beyond direct consciousness. In both hypothetical instances mentioned, the gaming experience -as we now know it- is transcended/discarded, in favour of a much more intense real-life experience, on which we can only hypothesize for the moment. Thus, a Player cannot be completely identified with the Character, unless he undergoes a radical thought and perception change, which for the moment is unattainable, as far as contemporary digital entertainment is concerned.

Meta-thinking thus, up to a certain degree, is a normal and essential part of the gaming experience as we currently know it. Most of us enjoy the fact that we can try and do things in-game that we are hesitant or just unable to do in the real world, and (most importantly) with almost non-existent consequences in the case of failure, virtual apprehension, death, etc. It is true that one could argue that if she could live such an experience, she may well choose to undergo it, but as pointed out above, this would be a real-life one, transcending the gaming genre. The fact remains that meta-thinking is something we all do in a certain degree, be it the acknowledgement of the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, or just the knowledge that we play a game. It is true also that there are gradual stages to it, quantitative and qualitative variances, which may well shape (or undermine one could claim) the gaming experience, in varied degrees.

It is obvious, that since we are not, as Players, parts of a game world’s society (or societies) for an amount of time large enough to make us knowledgeable about it, we must learn certain basic things about it, its physical laws and mechanisms on the very least, via out-of-the-game-world sources: the game manual, site or guides (though in the first two cases information may be disguised as documents belonging to the game world – letters, bestiaries, journals, etc), a tutorial (which is usually implemented via advice that comes “from outside” the game world – although certain games (like the Ultima series) suppose that the Character is a newcomer to the world, and thus implement the learning process from inside the game world), and the options menu (the key bindings in the case that no tutorial exists and the manual is not present or does not mention them). These sources are usually necessary in order to not being completely lost in the game world upon entrance in it. This, along with our knowledge/experience from previous, similar games (which is the deeper level of meta-knowledge, one we cannot consciously discard from our being), consists the most basic meta-thinking level, one that is almost impossible for a game to be rid of. From there on, however, all other meta-knowledge of the game world is (or at least should be) optional, as far as the Player’s experience of the game is. This means that ideally one should not be forced to the use of knowledge gained via meta-thinking mechanisms, even Save/Load/Restart ones, in order to successfully navigate the whole, or at least the main part of the game. While most of us have learned to avert our eyes to the meta-thinking nature (which will be analyzed below) of the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, this does not mean that it is not there. The fact that one can learn of the outcome of a decision and then use it to make this decision, is (almost universally) outside the logic of any game world.

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A book containing lore about the empire of Tamriel, presented as originating from the game world (from Elder Scrolls: Oblivion special edition)


Immersion and Meta-thinking

Ernest Adams refers to the term “suspension of disbelief, as used by the game industry, that has come to mean immersion: losing track of the outside world. Immersion is the feeling of being submerged in a form of entertainment, or rather, being unaware that you are experiencing an artificial world. When you are immersed in a book, movie, or game, you devote all your attention to it and it seems real. You have lost track of the boundaries of the magic circle. The pretended reality in which you are immersed seems as real as, or at least as meaningful as, the real world.”. I will add that you never lose track of the realness of the real world, something implied in the “as real as, or at least as meaningful as, the real world” part. He then demarcates (at least) 3 types of gaming immersion: tactical, strategical, and narrative. By immersion I mostly mean in this text narrative immersion, which is “the feeling of being inside a story, completely involved and accepting the world and events of the story as real. It is the same immersion as that produced by a good book or movie, but in video games, the player is also an actor within the story”[2].

Brown & Cairns on the other hand do not go for a strict, narrow definition of immersion, but approach it as a dynamic, three-leveled procedure, which consists in the Player’s engagement, engrossment, and total immersion [3]. What is of interest here is total immersion, which is defined as Presence. Wirth et.al. regard Spatial Presence as “a two-dimensional construct. [Its] core dimension is the sensation of being physically situated within the spatial environment portrayed by the medium (“self-location”). The second dimension refers to the perceived possibilities to act: An individual who is experiencing Spatial Presence will perceive only those action possibilities that are relevant to the mediated space, but will not be aware of actions that are linked to her/his real environment [the manipulation of game controls]. However, the list of phenomena defining Spatial Presence does not need to include the user’s experience of nonmediation, i.e., the deactivation of cognitive information that defines a given situation as a media exposure [in other words the acknowledgement that we play a game is compatible with Spatial Presence]”[4].

Moving on from these definitions, the fact remains that the immersion of the player as a (usually advertised) feature of games is in opposite terms to, and negatively influenced by meta-thinking (i.e. thinking as a being outside the game world). As was explained above, total, tautological-level immersion is contrary to the contemporary concept of video-gaming, as well as our machines’ capabilities.

Role-playing games in general are on especially bad terms with meta-thinking, since immersion in a role is a desired effect of engagement with the game, explicitly implied in the genre title. In fact, in tabletop RPGs, meta-thinking from players is frowned upon in many a rulebook. The fact, however, that computer RPGs implement on the very least the Restart mechanism, is the first crack in the immersion armor. From there on, whatever detracts from the Player’s suspension of disbelief (as the immersion in the game world can alternatively be called), obviously expands the cracks.

The interesting thing is that we consider meta-knowledge an enemy of immersion because we take the Character’s way of gathering knowledge to be similar to our own, and restricted by the same things. In other words, we tend to consider meta-knowledge about the game world to be “realistically” unobtainable by a Character, because a Player cannot obtain (to our knowledge at least) meta-knowledge about the world she lives in, namely the real world. She may well make assumptions made on probability, intuition, or any other kind of prediction, yet she can never be sure about some future actions, unless she performs them, unless they transform from future to past events. More important than the meta-knowledge content, however, is the mode of acquiring it. A Player (or a human in general) cannot acquire (to our knowledge at least) knowledge from a source that is not part of the real world; we probably cannot even think of a way of how this could happen, apart from nesting our world as a game world of a higher order “real world” (which only transfers the problem to another level, and does not solve it), or doing a similar correspondence. Thus, we tend to suppose that this kind of “knowledge-source” restriction applies also to the game world, mostly because we just cannot think of an out-of-the-world way that we can obtain it, and consequently, if our Character obtains knowledge through meta-thinking, our suspension of disbelief weakens.

The meta-thinking essence of Save/Load/Restart mechanisms

As mentioned above, the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms are one of the earlier and most integrated meta-thinking (“I know that I can try again and again, that this is a part of the game world’s structure”) features of electronic games. First and foremost, they are obviously grounded, in the purest sense, in replayability; if a game could not even be replayed it would be a product which is to be experienced only once, losing much in the way of long term value (imagine that you only have one try on the game – who would invest in an experience that could well end before you could get to know the basic mechanics?).

These mechanisms are integrated in the game, as behind-the-scenes mechanisms, ones that are non-perceivable by an entity belonging to the world in question, just like dice rolls, and exact numerical stats and skill values. Knowing that one can always load a previous version of the world, opens up possibilities to the player which are unimaginable to a denizen of a world that does not contain such mechanisms “in front of the scenes”. It is quite probable that human beings would behave much differently if they had the option of loading a previous version of the world, with them retaining the knowledge of what happened in the temporal space between save and load, taking more chances, optimizing (as far as their goals are concerned) their actions and choices. In a lesser degree, the knowledge of how other world mechanisms work would also affect the behaviour. Imagine that we knew what dice is rolled about the outcome of an action we can take in the real world, and what exact modifier would be the result of any supplementary action we could make to influence the result of that primary action.

Save/Load can be used in two ways: a. to break up the gaming experience in manageable temporal segments, in which case the course through the game is fragmented, but fragments do not overlap with one another, and b. to re-experience a temporal snapshot of the game world, in which case the the course through the game is again fragmented, but this time the fragments overlap with one another. The overlapping that occurs in the second case, can be translated into player meta-knowledge about the game world, a knowledge that is non-existent in a world of perceived objective temporal linearity.

Player as the meta-thinking accumulator of knowledge
In games with normal Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, accumulation of knowledge about the game world usually happens via successive “passes” of it with a multitude of Player incarnations. What I mean here with “incarnation” is the combination of in-game Player vessels (be it different Characters or just the same one being loaded again from a previous save file/point) and the Player personality, experience, and knowledge. An incarnation thus is the sum of: i. shell (the Character) and ii. driving force/invoked consciousness (the Player). The Player is an entity that by default can not interact directly with the game world, being able to do so only via the Character, which in the case of loading/restarting may, from the standpoint of an in-game entity, be the same being that existed in the pre-load/pre-restart game world state (since from in-game these mechanisms are imperceptible). But in fact, each Character incarnation is a vehicle for accumulation of knowledge/experience about the world and its mechanics. It follows that the Character (i.e. the shell) can be considered as a tool which is unrestricted by temporal restrictions, gradually turning the Player entity from an explorer-of-a-newfound-land to a citizen-in-secret of the world. Each of the Character incarnations is, from a phenomenological point of view, the same entity ontologically, crystallizing each time in a more knowledgeable entity aspect. In the end, trial and error reign supreme as a mode of knowing the in-game world, at least in traditional cRPGs.

An interesting thought is that after loading a part of the game that we have already been through previously, a strange deja-vu would not be amiss to both the Character and the NPCs participating in any sort of interaction (conversation, combat, etc) with it, any interaction that had already taken place before loading. This, however, is something quite weird to be implemented, it being antithetical to the base meaning of Save/Load: that you load the world as it exactly was on the moment of saving – obviously games with elements of randomness in each loading are a different case. That exactness is supposed to include everything shell-wise (even the Character’s journal/stats/choices) apart from the Player, who is now (after loading) empowered with the knowledge of a situation (with previously unfavorable outcome usually, but not always so – for instance there are times in which we load to experience the outcome of a different conversation option) via a new incarnation.

The interesting thing about the Player is his being an entity that, besides the in-game-world experience avenue, also collects power/knowledge/understanding of the game world through the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, as well as through out-of-game resources. It is an entity that can change without spending any temporal currency in-game, something quite unfathomable from a real-life point of view. For how could anyone change in any aspect, if no time was consumed towards this change? It is a truth, that in order for a being to change in even the most non-significant part of itself, it would have to experience something (mentally or otherwise). This something, in order to be experienced, must be placed upon a temporal terrain, since we cannot make a thought in a zero quantity temporal space. Even an apparently spontaneous thought takes an infinite-small amount of time to form itself and to be registered by the thinker. Or, in other words, we cannot think of/about anything without this thinking taking us even an infinite-small amount of time. Thus appears a paradox, from the in-game perspective: there is no “material” impact emerging from the accumulation of knowledge via the meta-thinking avenues ( in other words, no currency of any kind is traded for knowledge), aside from certain niche cases (Dark Souls for instance, or Darkest Dungeon), and apart from player time – a currency whose concept is beyond the game world, or rather, outside it.

Tangential upon the previous discussion is also the concept of min-maxing, namely optimizing the Character, stat-wise, and/or the party, member-wise. Creating an optimized character means essentially that you know what skills/stats/build are necessary/obligatory for finishing the game, or even for experiencing most of its content. This knowledge obviously comes from either previous experience with the game world, or from out-of-game sources. Min-maxing, as a concept, is pure, cold rationality; all aesthetic, emotional, or just whimsical preferences of the Player are ignored in favour of an almost cynical efficiency. Adopting this concept reveals a Player mindset which possibly favours optimization of their playing time, the least challenge possible (even in hard difficulty levels), and generalizing, probably favours solid goals and their overcoming, over a fluid and somehow intuitively articulated experience of the game world. Min-maxers may well be modernity incarnated, as far as video-games players go.

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Notes:
[1]: http://www.irontowerstudio.com/
[2]: Fundamentals of Game Design, Ernest, 2010
[3]: A Grounded Investigation of Game Immersion, Brown & Cairns, 2004 (link)
[4]: A Process Model of the Formation of Spatial Presence Experiences, Wirth et.al., 2007 (link)

Darkest Dungeon preview

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Αν η ιδέα ενός μαζοχιστικού επιτραπέζιου (σαν το «Mansions of Madness» της Chaosium), κλειδωμένου μέσα στο σώμα ενός turn-based, rogue-like dungeon crawler, με μυριάδες συνδυασμούς χαρακτηριστικών όσον αφορά τον καθένα από τους τέσσερις ήρωες της ομάδας, σας ακούγεται ενδιαφέρουσα, τότε το Darkest Dungeon σίγουρα αξίζει την προσοχή σας. Το παιχνίδι, από τα ανεξάρτητα και νεοσύστατα Red Hook Studios, έχει κυκλοφορήσει σε early access από τα τέλη Γενάρη, με την ημερομηνία επίσημης κυκλοφορίας να βρίσκεται ασαφώς κάπου εντός του 2015.

Το Darkest Dungeon δεν είναι παιχνίδι για όσους δένονται με τους χαρακτήρες τους, ούτε για όσους θέλουν να χτίσουν ένα βέλτιστο party με σταθερό βήμα από την αρχή ενός παιχνιδιού. Σε αυτό διαφέρει από το μέσο όρο των παιχνιδιών ρόλων. Το RPG των Red Hook Studios είναι ένα λαβυρινθώδες τρελοκομείο, στο οποίο το πραγματικό συνάλλαγμα (οι ήρωες του παίκτη) ξοδεύονται δίχως φειδώ, στο βωμό της ατέρμονης εξερεύνησης. Επίσης, ας μην ψάχνετε εδώ για μια γραμμική, εξελικτική πορεία, τουλάχιστον όπως αυτή συνηθίζεται στα περισσότερα RPG· η αφιέρωση χρόνου στο παιχνίδι μπορεί να ωφελήσει τον παίκτη, αλλά μπορεί επίσης και να κάνει τα πράγματα χειρότερα.

THE LORD OF THE MANOR HAS RETURNED

Μια μίξη dark fantasy και Lovecraft-ικού horror: κάπως έτσι συνοψίζεται το setting και το υποτυπώδες σενάριο του παιχνιδιού. Η ατμόσφαιρα αυτή αποδίδεται πειστικότατα μέσω των δισδιάστατων γραφικών του παιχνιδιού, τα οποία έχουν πολύ ιδιαίτερη ατμόσφαιρα, θυμίζοντας κάτι από τις δουλειές του Edward Gorey στο πιο fantasy και στυλιζαρισμένο. Η σκοτεινιά είναι πανταχού παρούσα, ακόμη και στο μικρό χωριό που είναι η «πολιτισμένη» βάση του παιχνιδιού. Οι λεπτομέρειες στα κελιά του σανατορίου και της εκκλησίας είναι ανατριχιαστικές. Δυστυχώς η ποικιλία δεν είναι ακόμη ιδιαίτερα μεγάλη, ειδικά στα backgrounds, κάτι που ελπίζω να διορθωθεί μέχρι την επίσημη κυκλοφορία.

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Σεναριακά, ο παίκτης είναι ο κληρονόμος της προγονικής έπαυλης, κάτω από την οποία απλώνονται μπουντρούμια επί μπουντρουμιών, ένα τεράστιο σύμπλεγμα το οποίο καλείται να εξερευνήσει. Όπως ανέφερα, πρόκειται για ένα τελείως υποτυπώδες σενάριο, το οποίο στήνει το σκηνικό για το ατέλειωτο dungeon crawling που έπεται. Ο ίδιος ο παίκτης είναι ο αόρατος εγκέφαλος πίσω από την εκάστοτε ομάδα (πάντα τετραμελή) που φτιάχνει, στρατολογώντας τυχοδιώκτες, και στέλνοντάς τους κάθε φορά σε κάποιο από τα υπόγεια dungeons. Η μαγεία στο γράψιμο του Darkest Dungeon δε βρίσκεται στο σενάριο ή στο κείμενο των quests, αλλά στις πολλές ατάκες των διαφόρων ηρώων, οι οποίες παρουσιάζονται ανάλογα με την κατάσταση στην οποία βρίσκονται, και αντικατοπτρίζουν την ψυχολογική τους φθορά. Φυσικά θα ήταν εγκληματικό να μη γίνει αναφορά στον αφηγητή του παιχνιδιού, ο οποίος κλέβει την παράσταση με την απόλυτα επική προφορά του, μεταφέροντας τον παίκτη σε αγνά sword & sorcery τοπία. Ένα από τα highlights του παιχνιδιού.

DEATH WAITS FOR THE SLIGHTEST LAPSE IN CONCENTRATION

Από την εισαγωγική οθόνη ακόμη, το ίδιο το παιχνίδι ξεκαθαρίζει πως θα κάνει τη ζωή του παίκτη δύσκολη: το Darkest Dungeon έχει μόνο autosave, ενώ δεν υπάρχει δυνατότητα για load – άπαξ και κάτι γίνει δεν υπάρχει επιστροφή. Αν κάποιος χαρακτήρας πεθάνει, τότε χάνεται για πάντα, άσχετα με το level του. Οι afflictions (βλ. παρακάτω) θέλουν χρήμα και χρόνο για να θεραπευτούν – δεν υπάρχει κάποιος μαγικός άμεσος τρόπος αντιμετώπισης. Ο χώρος του inventory είναι ιδιαίτερα περιορισμένος. Οι ήρωες μεγαλύτερου level δε δέχονται να μπουν σε κάποιο dungeon μικρού level, αποκλείοντας έτσι τη δυνατότητα farming. Άπαξ και η ομάδα μπει σε ένα dungeon, τότε μπορεί να κάνει πολύ περιορισμένα rest, τα οποία δεν είναι χωρίς ρίσκο, ούτε θεραπεύουν τελείως τους χαρακτήρες. Τα healing skills δεν είναι διαθέσιμα έξω από τη μάχη. Όλες σχεδόν οι μάχες έχουν πρόκληση, και ο παράγοντας τύχη έχει αρκετή σημασία.

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Όπως φαίνεται, ο κατάλογος των εχθρικών για τον παίκτη χαρακτηριστικών του παιχνιδιού είναι μεγάλος, και ο συνδυασμός τους δημιουργεί στο χρήστη ψυχολογικό βάρος, αντίστοιχο με αυτό των ηρώων. Το Darkest Dungeon φθείρει τον παίκτη σταδιακά, αναγκάζοντάς τον ενίοτε να κάνει διαλείμματα. Με αυτόν τον τρόπο το παιχνίδι δημιουργεί μια ιδιότυπη ταύτιση παίκτη και ηρώων (οι οποίοι όπως θα δείτε χρειάζονται συχνές διακοπές από το adventuring), κάτι που δε μπορούν να καυχηθούν πολλά παιχνίδια. Και όλα αυτά, διατηρώντας παράλληλα το ενδιαφέρον του παίκτη με την ελάχιστη υπόσχεση της δύσκολης προόδου: κάθε upgrade που γίνεται στα κτίσματα του manor είναι ένα μικρό (ελάχιστο) βήμα προς την πιθανή κυριαρχία επί των υπόγειων συμπλεγμάτων. Είναι πανέξυπνα σαδιστικό.

THE MIND CANNOT WITHSTAND SUCH AN ASSAULT

Στην καρδιά του Darkest Dungeon βρίσκεται η ψυχολογική φθορά του συνεχούς dungeon crawling, όπως αυτή εμφανίζεται τόσο στους χαρακτήρες, όσο και στον ίδιο τον παίκτη όπως είδαμε. Σε αυτόν τον τομέα το παιχνίδι θυμίζει αρκετά το Call of Cthulhu pen & paper RPG. Συγκεκριμένα, κάθε χαρακτήρας έχει ένα στατιστικό, το Stress, το οποίο μέσα σε ένα dungeon αυξάνεται πολύ συχνά: κάθε φορά που δέχεται χτύπημα, όποτε το φως δεν είναι αρκετά δυνατό, αν κάποιος σύντροφός του δεχτεί critical hit, αν δεν έχει φαγητό, κ.ο.κ. Σε περίπτωση που το Stress φτάσει σε υψηλά επίπεδα, τότε υπάρχει μεγάλη πιθανότητα ο ήρωας να αποκτήσει κάποιο ψυχολογικό affliction, μια πάθηση που αφαιρείται μόνο με πολυέξοδη και χρονοβόρα θεραπεία στο χωριό. Η μείωση του Stress είναι φυσικά μια δύσκολη διαδικασία, η οποία απαιτεί χρήση συγκεκριμένων rest skills, ή απομόνωσης στην επιφάνεια. Το Stress, γενικά, συσσωρεύεται πολύ γρήγορα, και μπορεί να αχρηστεύσει χαρακτήρες ακόμη και μετά από μισό dungeon run, και για αυτό είναι αδύνατο να χρησιμοποιούνται οι ίδιοι ήρωες για κάθε εξόρμηση.

Πέρα όμως από το Stress, άλλες παθήσεις, σωματικές και κυρίως ψυχολογικές, καραδοκούν με εκνευριστική συχνότητα για τον επίδοξο adventurer. Η εξερεύνηση, αυτό που στα περισσότερα RPG είναι ένας πυλώνας απόλαυσης, εδώ γίνεται δίκοπο μαχαίρι, μιας και για κάθε βιβλιοθήκη ή σαρκοφάγο που θα έχει κάποια ισχνά rewards, υπάρχουν αρκετές περισσότερες που θα είναι επιβλαβείς για τον χαρακτήρα. Κοινώς, τρέμεις να ανοίξεις ένα σεντούκι.

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TO FIGHT THE ABYSS ONE MUST KNOW IT

Η κίνηση μέσα στα dungeons γίνεται από δωμάτιο σε δωμάτιο μέσω διαδρόμων ίσου μήκους, με χρήση minimap. Σε αυτό το σημείο το παιχνίδι θυμίζει αρκετά επιτραπέζιο, μιας και το όλο σύστημα θα μπορούσε πολύ εύκολα να αποτυπωθεί σε ένα δισδιάστατο ταμπλό. Παγίδες, θησαυροί και εχθροί, βρίσκονται σε συγκεκριμένα σημεία, τα οποία ενίοτε αποκαλύπτονται στο minimap.

Η μάχη στο παιχνίδι είναι turn-based, με τη χωροταξία των συμμετεχόντων να έχει ιδιαίτερη σημασία. Όλα τα skills έχουν συγκεκριμένο range στο οποίο μπορεί να γίνουν, το οποίο μπορεί να είναι είτε κοντινό, είτε μακρινό. Έτσι, για παράδειγμα, μπορεί κάποιο ranged skill να απαιτεί μεγάλη απόσταση, με αποτέλεσμα να στοχεύσει κάποιον χαρακτήρα που βρίσκεται στα μετόπισθεν, περιοχή που σε άλλα RPG είναι κατά γενική ομολογία ασφαλής. Στο Darkest Dungeon δεν υπάρχει η μαγική θέση στην ομάδα που θα προστατεύσει έναν αδύνατο χαρακτήρα – ο θάνατος καραδοκεί για όλους. Από εκεί και πέρα, κάθε πλάσμα που συμμετέχει στη μάχη μπορεί να κάνει ένα skill σε κάθε γύρο, εφόσον οι χωρικές συνθήκες για αυτό ικανοποιούνται, το οποίο (skill) δεν απαιτεί κάποιο resource.

DARKEST DUNGEON

Από ότι φαίνεται μέχρι στιγμής, το Darkest Dungeon προσφέρει μια ανάσα πρωτοτυπίας στο είδος των rogue-like RPG, προβάλλοντας σε τόσο μεγάλο βαθμό τον ψυχολογικό κόσμο των χαρακτήρων του, αλλά και του ίδιου του παίκτη. Η μάχη του είναι σχετικά απλή και ενστικτώδης, και εμπεριέχει πάντα ρίσκο, παρόλο που μπορεί να καταντήσει επαναληπτική. Η ατμόσφαιρα είναι από τα δυνατότερα σημεία του παιχνιδιού, σκοτεινή και φανταστική. Οι δυνατοί συνδυασμοί χαρακτήρων προσθέτουν στο replayability, ενώ και ο αριθμός των dungeons ήταν ικανοποιητικός, και προβλέπεται να αυξηθεί μέχρι την κυκλοφορία. Κάποια μικρά γραφικά θέματα μπορούν να βελτιωθούν, αλλά το παιχνίδι έχει ήδη κατακτήσει μεγάλη μερίδα του κοινού, αποδεικνύοντας πως ένα φρέσκο concept μπορεί να κάνει θαύματα.

The notion of Progress & RPG’s (part 2)

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First Part here.

B: Tabletop Progress

It could be said that the origins of tabletop RPG’s (and by extension of CRPG’s) can be traced back to tabletop/board games, as well as on storytelling and character acting. Let’s examine how progress appears in each of these:

A game, of any genre and form whatsoever, includes in its structure the notion of progression, of working towards an objective. The objective could be set by the game itself (via existing rules) or by the player, and could be set in stone, or be constantly changing. Whatever its nature, an objective requires a response on the part of the player, leading towards either its completion or its abandonment. A response is a choice and an action, however trivial it may be, physical or mental in nature. The player, responding to an objective, re-establishes his position inside the game’s infrastructure, for better, for worse, or inconsequently.

In the vast majority of board games, the whole of action takes place on a single gaming session (which, in extreme cases could be separated in more temporal spaces, but this is purely of a practical nature), the players antagonizing or cooperating towards a number of objectives, which are pre-existing (of the session itself) and incorporated in the whole structure of the game. The game progresses as one, more, or all of the players draw closer to the completion of the objective(s). This progression could entail an increase in difficulty, resources, risk, complexity, or any combination of these. The fact remains, that the players are presented with a goal, which they must achieve, so as to win the game. One could speak about two basic game states: Win and non-Win. The Win state is presented as the desired one, as better for the player than the non-Win one, which is the absence of the Win state, as far as the game is concerned. Thus, the notion of progress appears. One must work towards the improvement of his state. This is not to say that the path towards the Win state is trivial to the player experience of the game; in most cases this path is the game itself, and many players are only interested in this path, in the feel of the game mechanics and their implementation inside the game. But the idea of progress is essential, since it showcases the starting and end point of this path of indulging in the game mechanics.

The difference of progress between board games and tabletop RPG’s lies mainly on the former’s independence of each game session. Progress in a board game is self-contained inside each session. After each session of play, whatever progress has been made (leading to victory, or not) is erased, discarded, so as in the next session all players begin at the starting point, the whole of progress being in front of them (apart from meta-thinking and rules/structure understanding). Thus, progress is contained and remains unimportant outside a particular session. The mental image of a cyclical process is fitting, the linearity of progress being apparent only in each session.

On the other hand, RPG progress is cumulative between each game session, at least as far as the same story (and probably the same characters, but not always) is utilized. Especially the concept of campaign (as a grand story arc, or a collection of adventures) is based upon the characters’ progress inside the story. The lack of “Win” states, in fact the absence of win conditions in the rules, makes it possible for the players involved to keep setting new goals for the characters ad infinitum. Long-term thinking has a definite place here, since the character development is crucial to the evolution of the campaign itself. What has been mentioned in Part A is applicable here. There are of course the exceptions of the one-shot sessions or adventures, which however are not the norm, are more akin to a board game or a small theatrical play, and almost always do not take into account a large pillar of the genre, namely character development (through game mechanics). Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu adventures is a prime example of situations that tend to escalate frequently towards that kind of experience.

Apart from board games (and gaming in general), storytelling and acting/impersonation of characters, are also pillars of role playing games, maybe the most important ones. But progress in storytelling is only a necessary characteristic from a technical point of view: since a story must be told, recited, its external structure must have a beginning and end, though its content can be free of such linear shackles. On no account is the ending to be considered, from a formalist standpoint, as an improvement of the beginning, or vice versa. Still, the gradual revealing of the story’s content, plot, and folds, can be considered a sort of progression towards improvement of knowledge of the listener, concerning the specified story, creating thus a progress through quantitative assimilation. But between that and the betterment of the individual that assimilates the story lies a wide gulf, that is totally subjective and circumstantial.

The notion of Progress & RPG’s (part 1)

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A: A general perspective

The concept of progress is deeply rooted in the RPG genre (pen & paper or otherwise), the most obvious expression of it being the whole leveling structure. A character (or a multitude of them) almost universally sets out (the spatial verb is not ambiguously chosen, for progress is based upon spatiotemporal pillars) as a “low-level” (meaning weak in comparison to most challenges lying ahead) person, who is bound to improve (in an array of personality characteristics – physical, mental, social) as time passes, space is explored, and she indulges in actions that either hone her skills, expand her understanding of the world, help other beings, etc. This improvement is of a practical (as far as the game world is concerned) nature, as will be apparent below. The implication of a forward movement towards this practical betterment of the being is evident.

The notion of Progress is deeply rooted in western thought, as much as is the linear concept of time. Those 2 concepts are irrevocably intertwined in the mental construction of evolution through time, namely the idea that as time progresses, so civilization as a whole evolves, improving in comparison to its past aspects; not necessarily in every single time step it takes, but on a macro temporal level – for example: “civilization (and through it humanity) has improved during the last century, it has moved forward”. It seems that our linguistic mentality has connected the spatial (and subjective) term “forward” with the future (though on a subtler level this is not always the case – see for instance the phrase “winter has moved on”, which refers to a past season as having moved on, implying forwards). Still, it is good to remember that progress is not a humanity-wide idea (the Australian Aborigines for instance have no concept of it).

Returning to role playing games, let’s trace progress inside the mechanics of the genre. As mentioned, leveling is perhaps the single most obvious mechanical structure that is tied to the progress wheel. The whole leveling process is usually depicted in tables, in which a direction is specified as that of progression through the levels (usually from top to bottom, but not always so). Story matters aside (though even there we say that we want to see how the story unfolds or progresses) one of the reasons that we play RPG’s is to improve our character. How is that achieved? It depends on the game system, but in most of them, the experience point gain is central. Experience point: the word experience refers to a past event, experienced by the character, that has in a certain way enriched the character’s being, thus making it more “powerful”. All past experiences that matter (a thing decided both by the rules and by the dungeon master – in the tabletop/pen & paper variety) are enumerated and categorized, each translated to a certain number (or fraction possibly) of points. These are added up, summarized, and the specific nature of the event experienced is lost once turned to points (we do not usually have many categories of XP – for instance social, combat, etc). Thus, knowledge (as experience) is revealed in the game as cumulative and progressive, always adding upon the existing corpus of experience, as it was considered by science before quantum physics (and philosophy) came in to view. Whatever one experiences (apart from certain niche encounters – as are the level-draining undead in D&D for instance) contributes towards this character’s betterment.

CharLevel

Thus is leveling made possible through the adding up of past experiences, leading to the Level-Up! Moment, the culmination of the effort and time invested (see below), and an improved character. But what is exactly entailed in this improvement? Most, if not all, of the character improvements are of a practical (as far as the game world is concerned) nature. Incoming damage threshold (aka hit points) is increased, more skills are added to the character’s arsenal, some innate powers could appear or be awakened, and inherent stats (corresponding to physical, mental, or other abilities) are improved. The practical nature of the improvements is necessary, in order for the player to fully reap the fruits of his labour. If the improvement was of a theoretical, conceptual or mental nature, then they would simply serve the character and not the player, apart from situations of great identification between the two. To clarify this, how can a player feel, understand, and experience an attribute improvement, for example the rise of his character’s Intelligence by a number of points? Only through indirect means, by application of the new attribute or attribute bonus in situations where it is required to overcome an obstacle, or through the empowerment of a spell, the acquisition of a new one, etc, since direct perception of the improvement is out of the question (the player’s intelligence, if such a thing exists, is obviously not raised by the raise of the character’s one).

Thus, one ends up leveling through the accumulation of experience through a number of encounters experienced by his character, in order to improve the character, so as to be able to see the change in the overcoming of more encounters, which are required to level furthermore; a hamster’s wheel of sorts, that obviously does not take into account the desire of the player to experience a story or a game world. My focus here concerns the leveling mechanics and their progressive nature, which is somehow reflective of the frantic and vain quest for progress that permeates the western thought, at least from the Enlightenment paradigm shift onwards.

Of great importance is the idea underlying the whole aforementioned structure, that one can improve through devoting a quantity of a “currency” towards that improvement, whereas the currency is time, effort of thought, hand-to-eye coordination (in certain cRPG’s). This exchange (one could say investment, though an investment is an exchange nonetheless) is in the core of most RPG’s. Time improves the being. Improving it in a way that is meaningful for (and is subservient to) the situations arising inside the game worlds, governed by the game rules. The progress framework is set by the game itself, and the character follows this (more or less) linear course through it, a course whose end point is occasionally the level-cap.

Second Part here.

Pillars of Eternity and Space

I

Ο χώρος του παιχνιδιού

Στο Pillars of Eternity η πορεία του παίκτη ξεκινάει από την εξοχή. Μια περιοχή που παρουσιάζεται ως εχθρική (πριν ακόμη από την επίθεση· με την αμυντική στάση της κατασκήνωσης, με την αρχετυπική campfire η λάμψη της οποίας οριοθετεί τον ασφαλή δικό μας χώρο από το επικίνδυνο εξωτερικό χάος – την πραγματικότητα από το αδημιούργητο, σύμφωνα με τον Eliade, κάτι το οποίο αντικατοπτρίζεται στη λειτουργία του fog of war (βλ. πιο κάτω), με τα προειδοποιητικά λόγια του έμπειρου caravan master), εξωτική (οι πρωτοφανείς για εμάς σχηματισμοί Adra) και μυστήρια (ερείπια που όσον αφορά τον παίκτη είναι άγνωστης προέλευσης και λειτουργίας: τι ρόλο εξυπηρετούσαν αυτές οι παγίδες;). Κατά τη μεγάλη RPG παράδοση, τα underground μέρη παραμένουν εχθρικά, όπως γίνεται φανερό από το πρώτο μικρό dungeon, ή από τη σπηλιά με την αρκούδα. Η μετάβαση προς τον πολιτισμό γίνεται σταδιακά· μέσα στο Valewood η πρώτη θέαση φανοστάτη δημιουργεί ελπίδες για ξεκούραση, η γέφυρα στη συνέχεια και ο πλακόστρωτος δρόμος σφραγίζουν τη σιγουριά. Αλλά σύντομα θα αντιμετωπίσουμε και το άγχος του σταυροδρομιού, δηλαδή το δίλημμα μπρος στο άνοιγμα διάφορων οδών προς άλλες περιοχές, την απογραμμικοποίηση δηλαδή της πορείας μας, και την επιθυμία συστηματικής εξερεύνησης και επιλογής της πορείας. Η μυθολογική δυσοίωνη διάσταση των crossroads έχει να κάνει και με την πιθανότητα απώλειας επιλογών σε περίπτωση που επιλεγεί ο λάθος δρόμος. Στο Pillars of Eternity δεν ισχύει κάτι τέτοιο, αλλά η ασυνείδητη αντίδραση απέναντι στις επιλογές των (αυστηρά ή μη) σταυροδρομιών παραμένει.

A

Ο Caravan Master προϊδεάζει για την ποιότητα του περίγυρου

Αυτό το μοτίβο της έναρξης από την ακατέργαστη ύπαιθρο και της σταδιακής πορείας προς τον πολιτισμό είναι το αντίστροφο της αρχέτυπης RPG συγκέντρωσης στο πανδοχείο του χωριού ή της πόλης, με το σχηματισμό της ομάδας και την ακόλουθη εξόρμηση προς το άγνωστο, την επέλαση των εξερευνητών adventurers ως άλλων frontier pioneers στο αχαρτογράφητο. Η εκκίνηση από την εχθρική εξοχή δημιουργεί αίσθημα επαγρύπνησης, που συχνά συνοδεύεται από μια σχεδόν παράλογη νοσταλγία του πολιτισμού (τον οποίο δεν έχουμε ακόμη δει εντός του κόσμου του παιχνιδιού), λόγω της απουσίας αυτού (πράγμα το οποίο συμβαίνει και μετά από πολύωρο μη αστικό adventuring). Όπου πολιτισμός, η παρουσία της κοινωνίας: η απουσία εμφανών εχθρών, το μόνιμο οικιστικό σημάδι επί του περιβάλλοντος, η παρουσία NPC’s με τους οποίους μπορείς να συνδιαλλαχτείς, η ευκαιρία της ομάδας να αναρρώσει, να εξοπλιστεί και να αποτιμήσει τα λάφυρα, να αναλάβει καινούρια quests. Ο οικισμός είναι αφενός κομβικός για τη δράση, λόγω της ύπαρξης εντός του της πλειοψηφίας των quest givers, ενώ παράλληλα παρέχει την (ψευδή συχνά) αίσθηση της ασφάλειας. Αυτό το τελευταίο ενυπάρχει και στην χωροθεσία των εχθρών επί των υπαίθριων περιοχών: η κίνηση επί των δρόμων, των χώρων ανθρώπινης εισχώρησης στη φύση, είναι ασφαλέστερη από ότι η περιπλάνηση μέσα στο wilderness, καθώς υπάρχουν πολύ λιγότεροι κίνδυνοι επί αυτών.

B

Screenshot από το rest cutscene

Το Pillars ακολουθεί την οδό του ασφαλούς resting, δίχως την ύπαρξη random encounters. Το γεγονός πως πάντα παίζει το ίδιο cutscene δημιουργεί σιγουριά και ηρεμία δια της επανάληψης. Έτσι ο χώρος που σημαδεύεται από τη φωτιά ιεροποιείται και ασφαλίζεται στο μέγιστο επίπεδο, είναι γνωστός και παραμένει έτσι, χωρίς να επιτρέπεται σε αυτόν εισβολές.

G

Το αστικό/πολιτισμένο τοπίο δεν είναι κυρίαρχο σαν έκταση στο παιχνίδι. Συγκεκριμένα, μέχρι τη Defiance Bay βρίσκεις μόνο μικρές οάσεις πολιτισμού, μέσα σε μια θάλασσα wilderness. Στη μητρόπολη δημιουργείται η ψευδαίσθηση ότι η ισορροπία αλλάζει κάπως, κυρίως λόγω πυκνότητας quests. Η Πόλη έχει κι αυτή το άγριο τοπίο της βεβαία, τη δικιά της wilderness, εν τη προκειμένη τις κατακόμβες, το άβατο νεκροταφείο, και τον πυθμένα του λιμανιού. Οι χώροι αυτοί είναι στις παρυφές της κοινωνίας, ή εκτός αυτής, κι έτσι απαιτούν επαναπρόσληψη από τον παίκτη. Οι κανονικές όμως συνοικίες εκπέμπουν μια ασφάλεια και άνεση, οι οποίες διαρρηγνύονται όταν συναντάς κάποιον εχθρό· γεγονός αφενός παράδοξο, γιατί σπάει τη νόρμα της κοινωνικά συμβιβασμένης συμπεριφοράς εντός του αστικού κοινωνικού χώρου, αφετέρου δημιουργεί ερωτήματα σχετικά με τους περαστικούς, τους φρουρούς, και την αντίδραση αυτών απέναντι στη ρήξη της αποδεκτής συμπεριφοράς.

Χωρική Δομή

Ο χώρος του Pillars of Eternity είναι μη συνεχής, διασπασμένος σε διακριτά τμήματα, σε levels θα μπορούσε να πει κανείς (αν και όχι με την στενή έννοια μιας κλιμακωτής δυσκολίας). Το παιχνίδι ακολουθεί αυτήν την οδό (όπως και οι προκάτοχοί του), αντί του ενιαίου κόσμου, των Elder Scrolls για παράδειγμα (όπου κι εκεί βέβαια υφίσταται διαχωρισμός, μεταξύ εξωτερικού και εσωτερικού χώρου). Αυτός ο κερματισμός της χωρικής ενότητας αφενός βοηθά στην συγκεκριμενοποίηση των σημείων ενδιαφέροντος, τόσο στο μυαλό του σχεδιαστή όσο και σε αυτό του παίκτη.

C

Η διακριτή φύση του κόσμου, εμφανής στο world map

Απαριθμείς, κάνεις νοητές κατανομές και αλληλουχίες, και σχεδιάζεις την πορεία σε σταθερά βήματα. Δημιουργεί όμως και χαρτογραφικές ασυνέχειες, όπως και απορίες για τις ενδιάμεσες των τμημάτων περιοχές. «Αυτές οι 6 ή 12 ώρες ταξιδιού μέσα σε ποιο ακριβώς τερέν γίνονται;», «Αν πήγαινα από την περιοχή που δεν υπάρχει αλλά υπονοείται δια της απουσίας της στο παιχνίδι, θα μπορούσα να αποφύγω την τάδε ενέδρα, ή να στήσω τη δικιά μου;», κτλ. Η επιλογή είναι άσκηση ελέγχου, δημιουργεί ράγες κίνησης, καθώς δε μπορείς να βγεις από το προαποφασισμένο (λόγω τεχνικών περιορισμών, προφανώς, σε ένα cRPG, αλλά όπως και να ‘χει είναι μια ακούσια άσκηση δύναμης) διάστημα-τροχιά.

D

Χρονική και όχι χωρική έκφραση των αποστάσεων

Οι αποστάσεις στο παιχνίδι δεν υφίστανται χωρικά, αλλά χρονικά, όπως και στον πραγματικό κόσμο άλλωστε (η απόσταση είναι πάντα σχετική, κι έχει να κάνει με τον τρόπο μετακίνησης και την αντίληψη του σκεπτόμενου. Μπορεί η επιστήμη να έχει αυθαιρετήσει με την επιβολή των global μέτρων, αλλά με διάρκειες σκεφτόμαστε – και τα χιλιόμετρα σε διάρκεια τα ανάγουμε). Το x ταξίδι θα πάρει 12 ώρες – και η κούραση που θα ακολουθήσει θα είναι χρονική, εδώ δεν υφίσταται το τερέν ως επιπλέον παράγοντας φθοράς. Στον χάρτη οι αποστάσεις είναι πλασματικές· τα districts των πόλεων απέχουν μεταξύ τους λεπτά και όχι ώρες, αλλά η αγνή χαρτογραφική απόσταση τους είναι ίδια με 2 άλλων περιοχών που μπορεί να απέχουν δεκάωρο μεταξύ τους.

Όσον αφορά τη σηματοδότηση και σημασιολόγηση του περιβάλλοντος, το παιχνίδι ακολουθεί το μοτίβο της ονοματοδοσίας, και του interactivity. Το tab είναι ο κύριος δίαυλος της νοηματοδότησης, μέσω του highlighting. Οι highlighted πόρτες ξεχωρίζουν τον οικιστικό διάκοσμο από τα κτίρια ενδιαφέροντος, με τον ίδιο τρόπο που η ύπαρξη ονόματος αντί ενός γενικού χαρακτηρισμού (για παράδειγμα commoner) ξεχωρίζει τα άτομα σημασίας, από τους διακοσμητικούς NPC’s (όπως γίνεται εδώ και δεκαετίες στο είδος). Αυτή τη φορά η πόλη δυστυχώς δεν έχει τυχαία σπίτια ή κτίρια στα οποία να μπορείς να μπεις αν θες για να κάνεις μια διάρρηξη ή απλά να εξερευνήσεις· κάθε χώρος έχει και σχέση με κάποιο συγκεκριμένο quest, φτιάχνοντας ένα καθαρά player-centric αστικό τοπίο.

E

Η δεξιά, highlighted πόρτα είναι η είσοδος για ένα σημείο ενδιαφέροντος, η αριστερή όμως είναι απλά διακοσμητική, και γι’ αυτό δεν τονίζεται. Εμφανείς οι χαρακτηρισμοί «Commoner» για τους διακοσμητικούς NPC’s

Περί fog of war

Ανέφερα πριν τη θεωρία του Eliade περί πραγματικού και ασχημάτιστου, ρευστού χώρου. Σύμφωνα με αυτήν, ο (θρησκευόμενος) άνθρωπος της παραδοσιακής κοινωνίας θεωρεί ως απόλυτη πραγματικότητα μόνο αυτόν το χώρο στον οποίο έχει αποκαλυφθεί το Ιερό, είτε με την ίδια την παρουσία Του, είτε μέσω συμβόλου Του, είτε με την αναπαράσταση της κοσμογονίας από τον πιστό μέσω τελετής. Αν μεταλλάξουμε την θεωρία αυτή, δίνοντας στον παίκτη το ρόλο του Ιερού, τότε το σύμβολό του μέσα στον κόσμο του παιχνιδιού είναι η εικονική του παρουσία, το avatar του, δηλαδή η ομάδα του στην προκειμένη, η οποία είναι παράλληλα και εκπρόσωπος της κοινωνίας του κόσμου της (ακουσίως ή μη). Η εξερευνητική πορεία αυτής εντός του παιχνιδιού είναι κοσμογονία. Η μετατροπή του ακατέργαστου από κοινωνικές διεργασίες χώρου σε πραγματικό γίνεται με την επίσκεψη του/των χαρακτήρων σε αυτόν.

F

Μπροστά σε ένα ασχημάτιστο ακόμη τοπίο. Το σκοτάδι του fog of war κυριαρχεί

Αυτό φαίνεται πειστικά μέσω του fog of war. Πριν την δημιουργική επίσκεψη του χαρακτήρα, το μόνο που βλέπει ο παίκτης είναι ένα μαύρο τίποτα, το προδημιουργικό χάος. Μετά την επίσκεψη το άγνωστο αποκαλύπτεται, δημιουργείται, ουσιαστικά, για τον παίκτη. Η συνεχής παρουσία της εικόνας του Ιερού είναι απαραίτητη όμως για την πλήρη βίωση του χώρου. Ακόμη και μετά την πρώτη αποκάλυψη, ένα διακριτικό fog of war παραμένει πάνω από τον χώρο με τον οποίο δεν έχουμε εγγύτητα, παρότι ξέρουμε το τοπικό layout. Πρέπει να βρισκόμαστε εκεί για να μας αποκαλύπτεται στην ολότητά του ο τόπος, καθώς αλλαγές μπορεί να έχουν προκύψει κατά το διάστημα που αυτός αφέθηκε μόνος (στο Pillars δεν υφίσταται enemy respawn, άρα αυτό ισχύει σε μικρότερο βαθμό από άλλα RPG).

To fog of war έχει να κάνει βέβαια και με τη γενικότερη παρουσία του Κοινωνικού, και όχι μόνο με την ομάδα ως εκπρόσωπό του. Στις civilized περιοχές ο χώρος είναι οικειοποιήσιμος αμέσως, είναι ήδη δημιουργημένος λόγω της προϋπάρχουσας παρουσίας «πολιτισμένων» μαζών. Έτσι οι χάρτες των οικισμών δεν έχουν το βαρύ σκοτάδι του fog of war, έχουν όμως την πιο διακριτική εκδοχή του.

Οι μετατροπές του Χώρου

Ενδιαφέρον έχει η μετατροπή του χώρου στο παιχνίδι, τόσο σε πραγματικό επίπεδο, όσο και νοητικά, στην αντίληψη και στάση του παίκτη απέναντί του. Η αρχική μου οπτική απέναντι στην Caed-Nua (όχι τα από κάτω, μόνο το φρούριο) εμπεριείχε αγωνία και αναβολή. Δεν ήθελα να πάω με τη νέα σχετικά ομάδα, γιατί νόμιζα πως το κάστρο θα ήταν κάποιο μεγάλο dungeon (υποψιασμένος από την παρουσία κάποιων εχθρών στον περίβολο, αλλά και από την default εξίσωση ερείπια=κίνδυνος), πάνω από τη δυναμική της ομάδας μου. Όταν βέβαια το πήρα απόφαση είδα πως το κυρίως ειπείν stronghold δεν είχε ούτε μια δεκάδα εχθρών μέσα του, και πως μετά το «καθάρισμα» το κτίριο πέρασε στην ιδιοκτησία μου. Η μεταστροφή από την αίσθηση απειλής και αντιπάθειας σε αυτή της οικειότητας του χώρου ήταν άμεση (παρόλο που η ύπαρξη μιας αβύσσου από κάτω μου με έκανε να νιώθω μια απειλή, μέχρι που ξεμπέρδεψα οριστικά με όλα τα levels των Endless Paths), και μάλιστα χωρίς να αλλάξει κάτι στη φυσική αναπαράσταση του τοπίου (αργότερα έγινε και αυτό μέσω των upgrades, και σίγουρα ωφέλησε στη μεγέθυνση του πολιτισμένου χαρακτήρα του συμπλέγματος).

H

Η Caed-Nua μετά και πριν την παρέμβασή του παίκτη

Η άποψη για το τοπίο μπορεί να αλλάξει και αρνητικά, όπως στην περίπτωση των ταραχών στη Defiance Bay, αυτή τη φορά η αλλαγή σηματοδοτούμενη κυρίως από φυσικές μεταλλάξεις (μπλόκα στους δρόμους, μπλοκάρισμα γνώριμων δρόμων και εξόδων, φωτιά και ανακατανομή των NPC’s). Ο παίκτης νιώθει μια αβεβαιότητα και αγωνία, όχι μόνο για την πόλη ή για την ομάδα, αλλά και για πιθανά unfinished quests. Λόγω meta-thinking, αναρωτιέται αν θα έχει ευκαιρία να τα ολοκληρώσει τώρα που η γνώριμη εικόνα άλλαξε και κάποιοι NPC’s μπορεί να είναι νεκροί ή χαμένοι. Η ακόλουθη επαναφορά της κανονικότητας στην πόλη είναι ανακουφιστική και ηρεμεί τον παίκτη, εδραιώνοντας την Defiance Bay ως κάτι το αιώνιο, αναλλοίωτο από τα ανθρώπινα, κάτι που έχει ξεπεράσει τον θνητό δημιουργό του και υπερθεματίζει τον υπεράνθρωπο, Ιερό χαρακτήρα του πολιτισμού.

Παρόλο που υπονοείται (καθώς δε μπορείς να αλληλεπιδράσεις άμεσα με το περιβάλλον), η στατικότητα του τοπίου δεν είναι πάντα σίγουρη: υπάρχουν σημεία που επηρεάζονται από τον κύκλο μέρας και νύχτας, από πράξεις του ίδιου του παίκτη, ή από την προώθηση της πλοκής. Όταν το αντιληφθεί αυτό ο παίκτης μπορεί να του δημιουργηθούν άγχη για αλλαγή του χώρου που έχει εξερευνήσει προηγουμένως και μπορεί να την έχει παραβλέψει, και να οδηγήσει σε μια τουρνέ εντός των γνωστών του περιοχών, με διαφορετική ματιά όμως, μέσα από το πρίσμα της αναζήτησης αλλαγών σε ένα ήδη καταχωρημένο ως γνωστό τοπίο.