The Walking Dead: Intimacy & Loss in the Zombie Apocalypse

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The first PC games I ever played were the Sierra Online adventure games. They were puzzle-grinding perfection. Pick up piece of bread. Feed piece of bread to troll. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand that request.” Feed the piece of bread to troll. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand that request.” Argh. Give bread to troll? “He gobbles it up with delight!” That was before Sierra revolutionized the playing field by distilling the SCUMM commands down to a mere five icons for King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!: walk, do, talk, look, and item. In Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers, they added in “taste” and “smell”.

The Walking Dead by Telltale Games manages to pare it down further. Now it’s just walk, talk, item, and shoot. It’s even contextual, so you won’t have the option to do anything unless it can be used within the context of the scene. As Lee Everett, a man on his way to prison in the first days of the zombie apocalypse, you must sneak, shoot, and speak your way to survival. Even more disconcerting as a “traditional adventure gamer” is the presence of many timed events.

Lee is given 4 options when trying to discuss what the group should do with a boy who has been allegedly bitten. Paranoia and hunger is high in the zombie apocalypse, and the developer’s put the pressure on by not allowing any leisurely decision-making, leading to some haphazard choices on my part. Worse yet are the parts where you must choose between saving two characters. Do you go for the brunette hottie with the gun but no bullets, or the techie being dragged out the window?

Of course, a year and half after the initial release of this game, there has been plenty written about the procedural nature of the game, its world, and its stories. These moments and the way they’re designed to put the pressure on mimic the very way any of us might feel in the zombie apocalypse. One might even say that it parallels many of the decisions we have to make in our everyday, zombie-less lives. It’s a tense gaming experience, one so emotionally fulfilling that it starts to rival the catharsis of high theatrical tragedy.

Now, I wasn’t the biggest the fan of the show. The writing got a bit hokey, and I realized by the end of the first season that I didn’t know 90% of the main character’s names. It just didn’t do it for me. Then I played this game. This was how the fictional zombie apocalypse was meant to be experienced. Making choice after choice, you feel loyalties get made and then break. Combining the narrative and the interactive decision-making gave this cartoon game much more authenticity and realism.

I actually felt for characters when I disappointed them. There were no easy decisions, not even any “right” decisions. If you wanted to see the end of the game, you just had to take a deep breath, muster up your courage and leap. Of course, there were a few moments where the developers mercifully gave me more time to make a decision, both such moments involving Clementine, the young girl in your care. It’s moments like these that make me glad to be a gamer. They’re moment that I will remember as long as I remember the feeling I had at the end of The Sixth Sense or the completion of East of Eden.

The first moment I’d like to relay comes in Episode 4: Around Every Corner. You are going to lead your group into a dangerous human encampment to gather 2013-08-11_00007supplies in order to escape by boat. The moment comes where you have to make a decision about leaving Clementine, a 9 year old girl in your care, in the house or to take her with you. I really had to think about this; where would she be safe? I decided in the end that I had to take her with me rather than leave here with Omid, a member of my group on the mend.

The other decision point comes in Episode 3: Long Road Ahead, when Carly encourages me, that is Lee Everett, to open up to the group about my past as a convicted killer. Many of the speech decisions in the game come down to telling the truth. Or not telling the truth. There is no timer during this part, but I did have to decide who to tell. I had an easy time telling all…okay, most of the

Do I really have to tell her that I'm convicted killer?

Do I really have to tell her that I’m convicted killer?

adults about my past. I had already proven myself to them as a leader who could be trusted.

When it came time to talk to Clementine, though, I sat frozen at my computer. I might have even whimpered a little. I did not want to tell her. How could I tell this little girl that I was a convicted killer? What would be the point? Would she even understand or would it just upset her needlessly? This wasn’t necessarily the moment in the game where the developers hooked me, but it certainly did put this game into the territory of the brilliant. I was so engaged completely on an emotional level, and I had agency.

I finally did come around to telling her that I was going to jail, but as a small, merciful, caveat, I didn’t have to reveal the full truth to her. What would be the point in telling her that I was a killer? I thought it was enough to let her know that I’d made a mistake in my past, and I was being punished for it.

I’m not going to come out and say that every game needs to hit these heights of tragedy, but when games like this come along, it is important that we acknowledge how video games are starting to hit literary heights. There’s value in these games. It allows for reflection and examination on the same level as the best movies and books. There’s soul searching here, and there’s a feeling of intimacy, the same one gets from reading or seeing a particularly good book or movie.

Why do we put ourselves through experiences like this? So many friends and family members who go to movies talk about avoiding movies that make them sad or depressed. They talk about going to the movies to escape, not to experience the same feelings they feel in their everyday lives. I’d argue that these stories are actually nothing like our everyday lives. They’re much more heightened and extreme, and in many ways make our lives feel that much more commonplace. I’d also argue that to avoid these stories is like walking through the zombie apocalypse with a gun and no bullets. Tragedy and all the feelings it produces, when done right, is an important facet of our humanity. I’m happy that I was able to experience this particular story, happier still that it was done through the unique experience of a video game. Loss, death, sadness, hunger, longing, despair – we all have to go through it at some point in our lives. What better way to prepare ourselves than to go through it in the safe territory of a book, game, or movie?

Again, not every game needs to do this. I appreciate the myriad of tones, stories, atmospheres, and emotions I get to experience in a game. But isn’t it something when a game can make the player invest so much into the characters and the story to reduce (at least) this many men to tears?

(Spoilers! This gives away the end of the game! Be warned…the end will be ruined but it is also hilarious)

Anger Management & the Game

Full disclosure: I was a dedicated Starcraft II player for the last 3 years, ergo I learned the meaning of the word rage. Not only was I on the receiving end of people’s anger, but my rage-quotient amped up a few notches over the years. I punched walls. I used racial slurs and wished cancer on people – certainly not my proudest moments. It was totally hateful and totally wasteful.

A study by the APA has shown that violence and anger induced by gaming has less to do with violent content and more about competition. So the same abhorrent behavior on the basketball and tennis courts based on rivalry and competition is the same parent to video game rage.

After a time, not only does the intensity of playing a game like Starcraft II wear on you, but so does the anger associated with losing. So I quit. At least for a time.

Now, toxicity in the gaming community has been an ongoing issue. The advent of games over the internet opened up a Pandora’s Box of potential abuses, trolling, griefing, and straight up ugliness. Dan “Artosis” Stemkowski, a highly regarded caster of Starcraft II exclaimed his disappointment in the player community, especially on the North American servers. Greg “Idra” Fields was released from his teamEvil Geniuses. His bad boy attitude, once regarded as entertaining and part of his appeal as a player, became his downfall when he went too far with certain statements regarding the omnipotence of him being an asshole and the powerlessness of the SCII community.

Although anger and toxicity in gaming culture has been an issue of concern, as Dan Floyd and company at Extra Credits tell it above, developers are taking charge. Microsoft just revealed their plan for a player reputation system that would group up “bad” players, keeping them at a far distance from those who play nice. The DoTA community has had a long-standing reputation as being one of the worst as far as online abuses go towards other players. So when Valve investigated why players stopped playing DoTA 2 and found it was because of said abuses, they implemented a communication ban option that informed the offending player that they were being muted. So what happened?

Four weeks later and the ban system’s effects are already apparent. There’s been a 35 per cent drop in negative communication and 60 per cent of players who receive bans go on to modify their behaviour and don’t receive a further warning. [eurogamer.net]

Now it’s not exactly clear how these numbers are calculated. Regardless, if the numbers are true and the trend is accurate, this is an encouraging sign. It’s also a sad sign of just how far behind and downright negligent Blizzard has been regarding this issue.

Anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering

While I believe that people are by nature “good” people, certain systems and situations can and do bring out the worst in us. If we’re going to change as a community, there needs to be more transparency for the offending players and also developer initiative.

This isn’t to say that anger should be eradicated from our psychological makeup as gamers. As Jesper Juul illustrates in The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games, anger, shame, and the potential to lose at a game, are part of what makes a game playable, e.g. why play a game if we know we’ll always win? This, however, doesn’t mean that anger should become habitual, its own little monster. We need to be better to ourselves and to our fellow gamers. Besides, too much anger clouds our judgment, decision-making, and skill.

And how is it even possible for me to rip off the head of that nerd and put it rightfully on a pike while I dance around his burning nerd corpse, when I don’t even know his name or where he lives?

Kidding.

Prison Architect Alpha 12 – Contraband

So I thought I’d try doing something a little different today:

With the release of the Prison Architect Alpha 12, I decided to delve back in and make a video. This is a game where I put in 40 hours in 2 weeks of play. I even convinced a decidedly non-gamer friend to buy the game just by showing it to him.

Things discussed in this video: narcotics, inciting riots, the fun of turning over mattresses, and masturbating with handcuffs on.

It’s a 40 minute video introducing some of the new features to Prison Architect Alpha 12, which includes a much more robust and active contraband system.

Check out the build notes here!

My First (Digital) Game Board

Built in Garry’s Mod for my game design class.

First G-Mod Board

A simple 8×8, sixty-four square game board.

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It took me about 2.5 hours to complete.

No thanks to these two clowns.

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But thank you two for your help…

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…even if you are doing that weird thing with your hands
and the robot is doing a layout.

Download Map with Board from Steam Workshop
(
working on getting the board up as an asset without the map -
if anyone knows how, please leave a comment)

Street Fighter IV: Beaten By a Girl

At tonight’s performance, Ryu will be played by Brooke S.W.

7 Eleven. That’s where I first experienced Street Fighter II, but I was never any good at it. My cousin spent years pumping quarters into that machine. I stood in the background and watched. The competition was intimidating. “Block! Block! Block!” I just didn’t have the mechanical agility to get the concepts. I was only really good with the Nintendo controller and adventure games that required puzzle solving and thinking.

Out of all the game genres, fighting games continued to be my least-played. I just didn’t get the appeal. Now, with EVO and e-sports as a whole, fighting games are back in my purview. And last Saturday night was a chance to check it out again.

There were five of us: three guys, a birthday boy, and his girlfriend (our friend, too). She was stoked to go at it. I’m sure none of us can recall who went in what order, but we did let the birthday boy and said girlfriend play first. She picked Ryu (not Chun-Lilike most of my friends assumed). When she beat her boyfriend (I can’t remember whom he picked), quite convincingly, I was up next. I went to my old standby, Zangief, the hyper masculine Russian wrestler who to me felt like he had no reach.

She beat me. Then she beat my friend. The first person to knock her out was the game owner, whose apartment we were sitting in.

Over and over again, though, I exclaimed with surprise. “Wow, Brooke, just wow.” Befuddlement: “How are you doing this?”

Her response? “I do play video games occasionally, you know. I just happen to be skilled at this one.”

Why was I so shocked? Why my borderline sexist reactions? A girl? Beating us at video games? It didn’t last all that long, especially once we switched over to Marvel vs. Capcom, a more frenetic but less satisfying and responsive fighter. But still, how to explain my reaction. Was I surprised? Was I in awe?

This post definitely cannot be an in-depth post about sex and gender roles in game characters and game audiences – besides, Daniel Floyd does a damn good job in this video -

but I do think it is important to at least examine my reaction and my overwhelming joy that not only was I playing a game with a girl, something that doesn’t happen all that often, but also that I was being beaten by a girl. It’s also important to dovetail the Extra Credits video above and say that whenever I do discover a girl in gaming, it comes as a genuine and joyful surprise. Is it an evolutionary sigh of relief that whatever niche I sit in as a gamer will not be relegated to Y-chromosome only?

Perhaps. Maybe it’s also the idea that an activity and experience that I’ve treasured for so long has made its way past the boundaries of that 18-34 male demographic. Games are awesome.

So thank you anonymous female for teaching me how to use the ubercharge in Team Fortress 2. Thank you, Ms. Spyte for being an even better Zerg player than me. And thank you, Brooke, for taking a few hours out of your boyfriend’s birthday to decidedly kick my ass in Street Fighter IV. I look forward to our rematch.

 

I Gave It All Up for Starcraft – Mission 1

The year was 2010. The date July 18th. I’m on my way to a new apartment after having just graduated last month and in another month’s time, I’m going to be unemployed. I was depressed.

Now in the past, I always cushioned the blow of shitty times through retail therapy. Some people have clothes – I had video games. When my girlfriend moved to New York, I bought a Playstation 2. On the New Year after I graduated high-school I was feeling bummed, and Metal Gear Solid got me through it. Super Mario Bros. 2, Spy Hunter, Contra, Life Force, Leisure Suit Larry, King’s Quest, Mappy Quest. So many games to get me through some hard times.

So in late July of 2010, I bought Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty. Correction, I bought a laptop that I couldn’t afford so I could play Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty.
(transition)
1998 was my first year out of high-school. I was young and lost, and trying to get out of my house. I made friends with another gamer from high-school, once rival turned friend after graduation. He was into Final Fantasy VII. I played Half-Life.

Then he introduced me to the original Starcraft. I ran out and bought a new copy and barely played it. I was intimidated, afraid I was too stupid to play the game, especially online against other people. My cousin remarks that Starcraft 2 is the hardest game he’d ever played. A woman once remarked that in describing Starcraft 2 as an “intergalactic, strategy game for the computer,” I raised a series of red flags that go off when she’s sizing up men.

While I never played the original Starcraft: Brood War seriously (he says flame-shielding himself), I regretted not doing so after playing the sequel.

This blog serves to entertain and enlighten both avid fansof the game, as well as total noobs who know nothing about Starcraft. You’re maybe reading this and thinking, nah, I have no interest in this kind of thing. Cool. But to the other person who has maybe been morbidly curious, I entreat you to get a copy or try it at a friend’s house where you’ll either get bored or frustrated or both, giving up on it for all time in favor of games more pleasant and easier like Angry Birds or Farmville or League of Legends. Or relationships.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll have the talent and the interest and the focus. You’ll be awesome and quit your day job for the dream of going pro, never to see your friends ever again.

And that’s what I’m here to talk about…addiction. It destroys lives.

Just kidding. I’m here to talk about Starcraft. And addiction. And how it almost killed me. And how it also kind of saved my life.

But enough of that sentimental, happy crappy stuff. This is the end of my introduction. In the next post, we’ll talk about why Starcraft is awesome, so awesome that some people end up addicted to it.