Coming Back: Remaining Alive in Dimly-Lit Rooms

Eternal Return: Black Survival on Steam
A non-fiction interlude, reviewing Eternal Return: Black Survival    

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“The title…it doesn’t make a lot of sense…”

“What do you mean?  It’s Nietzsche.  The kids’ll love it!”

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Taking a brief break here from Crossroads (brief=while writing this), since game design and culture are on my mind.  To blow off steam lately, some friends and I have been playing Eternal Return: Black Survival, which, design-wise, is a fascinating and bizarre evolution, and it’s filled my head with many thoughts.  They are not terribly organized so do please pardon the rambling, and for those of you who don’t care for video games, don’t worry: This is about much at least a little more than the mouthfeel of my digital pastimes.

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The “what” comes first: Eternal Return is a Battle Royale (e.g. Fortnite) formatted as an isometric MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, e.g. DotA, League of Legends).  The latter term refers to a team-based game where players fight each other in an arena populated by tactically relevant (and usually at least slightly hostile) environmental features, growing and specializing their characters as the action escalates.  The game ends, generally, when one team achieves some goal with respect to the environment, unrelated, really, to the fighting with the other players (except insofar as they can’t stop you while they’re dead).

A Battle Royale is less complicated: A large number of players/teams get dropped onto a large map, and the last one standing wins.  To escalate the action (and to make safety a meaningful and fun tradeoff), weapons, armor, and other useful things are scattered around the map to give the strategically-minded survivors an edge in the showdowns that become inevitable as the map shrinks.

Amusingly (from an industry perspective), the two now-mega-genres have similar origin stories.  Some sloppy history: By most accounts, the first MOBA (in the sense they exist today) was a StarCraft mod called Aeon of Strife.  This inspired the Warcraft mod Defense of the Ancients (DotA), which became DotA: Allstars, which schismed out of Blizzard’s umbrella of control into League of Legends and DotA 2.  Similarly, Battle Royale started with the ARMA 2 mod DayZ, which passed design talent along to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), which prompted Epic Games to whipturn development on Fortnite in order to compete with it.

Generally, the creative direction of the games industry can be modeled as a linear combination of the interests of its best game designers and those of guys in suits who like the word “monetize”, and it is very easy to see the explosion of genres like these as dominated by the latter.  I’ll admit: It’s damned hard not to notice that within five months of the Auto Chess mod for DotA 2, both Valve and Riot had released their own proprietary versions, with Blizzard’s arriving only six months after that.  But the spectacle of the fat cat feeding frenzy distracts from the fact that these mod-to-blockbuster stories captured the artists’ attention too, with pseudo-legendary designers like Tim Schafer describing DayZ as the future of narrative in games (nosic).

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For those of you whose eyes glazed over at all of that, this is where things return to the normal subject matter of this blog.  The lingo may get a little blurry, but the key to Schafer’s argument is this: Battle Royale games don’t have a story in any conventional sense.  There is little setting, no cutscenes or writing, no characters but you and the other players, no narrative but the one you make for yourself.

Frankly, I feel vindicated.  Back when I was in school, I dropped this same argument in one of my writing classes.  The MFA student opposite me, unimpressed, inquired: “Isn’t that just everything in life, though?”  It was very Robert Frost of her, but last I checked, no one is arguing that free verse isn’t poetry anymore.  The boundaries where art begins and ends are not important.  They were never important.  What’s important is that art can be crafted from agency.  It can be framed and sculpted, and like just about everything else within our powers, it can be improved upon.

The baseline for multiplayer games is essentially what you see with mainstream sports.  You have a simple task with a simple goal, and the game is doing it better than the other guys until one of you wins.  Maneuver the sportsball through the hoopgoal.  Go fast.  Hit hard and shoot accurately.  That these imperatives apply equally well to football/soccer, Street Fighter, Mario Kart, and Halo shouldn’t be controversial, but make no mistake: There’s a narrative there.  It’s just a very short narrative, leaving comparatively few opportunities for interesting variation.  I’m not knocking the excitement of the neck-and-neck rival showdown, won at the last second by a half-court buzzer beater, but I will point out that when they make movies about sports, it is always about the context, an athlete or team’s struggle and growth over months or years–their rise to greatness–and not the one awesome match they fought out in the preseason when stakes were low.

This then begs the question: How do we take that framework of engagement and structure it in such a way that a single game tells a story worth hearing?  The MOBA and the Battle Royale are two answers to that question.

The standard narrative of a MOBA match is this: The beginning, instead of a team v. team slugfest, opens with smaller scale matchups (generally 1v1 or 2v2) in “lanes”, with each side competing to most efficiently extract resources from the “minions” the enemy base sends down each lane.  You can fight your opponent directly here, and you might even succeed if you outmaneuver them severely, but you’re weak.  The minions aren’t strong, but they are a significant defensive advantage should your opponent catch you in the middle of them.  And, of course, attacking your opponent beneath the defensive structures at the end of their lane is certain death, so barring extreme outcomes, it is advantageous for both of you to sit there and farm, competing to grow faster, prodding and skirmishing to prevent each other from feeling too comfortable.

Soon you grow stronger.  Within the first third of the game, you’ll have unlocked all of your abilities and have improved your stats.  With some smart planning, you can now work around or through your opponents environmental defenses and score a player kill (for much higher rewards) or simply leave your lane to coordinate with your teammates (and overwhelm another lane), all with the goal of securing more resources, growing stronger, and conquering objectives to aid in the final assault on your opponents’ inner stronghold.

Nuts-and-bolts-wise, this is basically a whole bunch of subgames glued together, though organically and analogous enough to common concepts (e.g. war) to not feel like an abomination.  The variation in skillsets the game demands is wild, with different tactical mindsets needed for “laning”, “jungling”, “sieging”, “teamfighting”, and skirmishing around objectives.  There is, of course, some overlap with the basics of controlling your character, but even that is subject to do’s and don’ts that don’t travel well between concepts.

Seems like a cost, but the holistic result is profound.  In 20-40 minutes, you’ve now gone through the better part of the Hero’s Journey, from humble beginnings (level 1 laning) to confluence with your companions (meeting up as the laning phase ends), proving yourself as a Dragon Slayer (literally an objective in League of Legends), and ultimate, hard-fought victory over the enemy.  The goal was to establish a complex narrative in a multiplayer game, and, uh, mission accomplished.

Ish.  There are cons, many of them logistical.  For example, these are team games, and the precisely-combined nature of their subgames means they don’t have IRL sports’ luxury of freeform adjustment to deviant behavior.  So if Timmy gets disgruntled and walks off the virtual field by way of an unplugged router, that ruins the game for everyone.  There are no substitutes, there’s no rearranging the teams to account for the new imbalance (both for technical reasons and for the fact that doing so would invalidate all of the narrative built up to that point).  All the players can really do is remain halfheartedly engaged as the game grinds on for another fifteen minutes to its predictable, cheapened conclusion.

This is, of course, inextricably entangled with the other big MOBA downside: These games are long.  In the abstract, 25-45 minutes might not seem like a long time, but it’s time when you cannot be interrupted, when a moment of inattention could have deleterious consequences for the following half-hour.  If that doesn’t sound at least mildly stressful, you probably ought to check in with your significant other more often than you do.  All this to say, the MOBA is a significant development for narrative in (multiplayer) games, but it’s not the only one in town.  Meanwhile, the Battle Royale tackles things differently, avoiding these issues and falling upon different ones.

The narrative of a Battle Royale, specifically, is less about growth and more about movement.  It’s less a journey of empowerment, a campaign to win the war, and more a daring trek through the desert or a harrowing escape from prison.  Growth is, of course, there, but it’s incidental, an excuse for the movement, a reason to scatter everyone across a giant map instead of just dumping them all into the usual FPS deathtrap and having them shoot it out.  The resulting, absolutely enormous sandbox serves to frame the goal nicely: This isn’t a daunting foe that’ll require skill and coordination to bring low–it’s a huge and hostile gauntlet, and you want to get to the end by any means necessary.  Of note, the former is a team goal, the latter, a solitary one.  Obvious point: Most Battle Royales allow you to play solo at no disadvantage, and even when you do play with a team, you will often lose your friends on the way to the end, leaving you to soldier on alone.

None of this is to diminish the narrative value of the journey–it’s just a different type of journey, one where you have the choice to fight or flee, making it to the end through bloodthirst, boofing every chad who shows his face in headshot range, or instead playing the clever scavenger, forgoing combat with the guy who is just gonna get killed by the next player he meets anyway, biding your time, picking the circumstances of your final showdown.

This addresses the MOBA’s weaknesses pretty well.  Players are numerous and eliminated rapidly, allaying any risk that someone might unilaterally kick the experience off its rails.  And it’s fairly short, with the map shrinking down to its highly constrained showdown point in twenty minutes (or less, depending on the specific game).

Predictably, this introduces its own problems.  The first is that you aren’t going to win a lot.  Games of Fortnite have 100 players.  Apex Legends does 60.  Assuming you are all evenly matched (you aren’t), this means you are likely to win fewer than one in 60 games, which maybe doesn’t sound so bad, but I will emphasize that the real parameters of that calculation definitely skew the output toward “fewer”.  This wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem if placing anything but first meant something, but it’s not clear that it does.  It is, in fact, trivially easy to not be the first one dead in a Battle Royale, because not being the first one dead only means you avoided the first clash over loot (and, of course, that you didn’t get any).  It’s not even particularly difficult to hide out and keep a low profile to the end, but doing so slams you right into the second big problem: 1v1 games are hard.

This is simultaneously big-dumb-obvious in theory and still shocking in practice, but virtually any mano-a-mano contest worth contesting is going to feature a high skill ceiling, and while multiplayer games tend to obfuscate it behind the chaos of a hundred shooting scavengers, team coordination, and (for asymmetrical games) matchup differentials, the final moments of a Battle Royale lead fairly reliably to a contest of skill between a small number of players on mostly even ground.  Then you factor in the likelihood that you are the most skillful player in the 100, and, uh, it seems like you’re pretty boned.  Again, victory isn’t everything, but when your narrative is worth so little when it doesn’t end in victory, it starts to look less worthwhile to keep pulling the lever on the slot machine.

Cutting off the salt stream, where does that leave us?  Our leading narrative structures have encountered four key pitfalls:

  1. Vulnerability to unilateral disruption
  2. Burdensome commitment of time and energy
  3. Minimal likelihood of victory (or, more importantly, having a worthwhile narrative at the end)
  4. Exposure to the vicissitudes of symmetrical balance

Is it possible, then, to design a structure that addresses all four?

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As with all questions of aesthetics, any answer is going to be a matter of interpretation, but I would argue Eternal Return is at least a respectable attempt.  Refresher/dissection of my previous description: It’s a Battle Royale with the interface/control scheme of a MOBA (isometric, QWER abilities that you rank up, equipment slots you fill up to improve your stats).  By this logic, its resolution of #1-#3 is actually pretty boring.  By simply being a Battle Royale, it becomes resilient to #1 and #2, and taking the edge off #3 is simpler than I’ve made it sound: Just reduce the number of players (Eternal Return has 18)!  Duh.  Where the MOBA elements really shine (and where this analysis gets its crunch) is in how they address #4.

It’s worth mentioning here that while certain game structures confer a sort of immunity to certain pitfalls (e.g. Battle Royale and unilateral disruption), MOBAs have no such immunity to #4.  It would certainly be possible to design a perfectly symmetrical MOBA with on-rails development to guarantee “perfect balance”–it would just be stupid, and no one would play it.  The salient observation here is not that MOBA designs inherently overcome the risk of directly exposing players to their own lack of skill but rather that they have tools to mitigate that risk to a greater or lesser degree.

The one to focus on is growth (matchmaking improvements with fewer players/teams as well as Eternal Return’s asymmetry–that each of its characters plays differently, with varying capabilities at different stages of the game–are relevant too, but they are less novel here).  

Most MOBAs structure character growth along two axes: “Experience”, a slow trickle of small stat improvements and ability access/augmentations awarded for productive activity (ie, killing stuff, in most MOBAs) and “resources”, often as a currency used to purchase items which provide larger, spikier stat boosts in a much more variable stream (the two are invariably correlated, but while the experience dispensed to all characters tends toward a tight bell curve, it is common to see a subset of players get “fed”, acquiring a great deal more currency than other players in the same match at the same time).  Eternal Return adopts this system, eschewing the Battle Royale standard of awarding random embiggening to those who stumble upon loot boxes.  This serves to both smooth and complicate the growth curve, reducing the power differential between the character who opened one more box and the one who showed up just behind him.  More importantly, it makes growth a focus, something to pay attention to, as doing it well or poorly can influence or even overwhelm in-the-moment mechanical contests down the road.

Another way to argue for the same design element is that it emphasizes multiple skillsets, deprioritizing absolute dominance in any one of them.  As with the earlier metaphor of military campaigns, you can excel either as a general, planning your map movement to most efficiently secure resources and control strategic positions and opportune times; or as a tactician, winning even unfavorable battles through superior execution and a dearth of mistakes.  Conventional Battle Royales heavily favor the latter; Eternal Return puts both on much more even footing.

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The result is a game with lots of cool narrative moments, not dissimilar to either genre it draws from, but notable for the way it fuses them and, more importantly, the way it minimizes the costs of each.

Back to hedge-world, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be everyone’s cup of tea.  If you dig neither MOBAs nor Battle Royales, you may be underwhelmed here, not even for dislikeability but for a lack of things you care for.  You might be put off by the anime aesthetics or the half-hearted translations, or you might just hate isometric, click-to-move control schemes.

But even beyond the obvious target demographic of [not the above], I’ll throw a cautious recommendation to that narrow, eclectic group who has no idea what the fuck I’m talking about but remains curious about this notion of narrative in agency.  Check it out.  It’s the future, man.  The future is now, of course, but it’s gonna keep coming back, if this budget localization is to be believed.

Because You “Can”

Image result for sans the skeleton

The unlikely final boss of Undertale says to you, just before he dies: “No matter what, you’ll just keep going.  Not out of any desire for good or evil…but just because you think you can. And because you “can”…you “have to”.  Not a profound indictment of someone committing genocide in a friendly, fictional universe (which, for those unfamiliar, is precisely what he’s trying to stop you from doing), but it says something interesting about human behavior besides.  I lead with this because it’s neat and quotable and I’m not great with nonfiction, but this essay isn’t about human behavior in general. More particularly, it’s about art.

To the detriment of most of the other things I do, I do a lot with games.  I design them, I play them, I write about them in random essays like this one, and I have conversations, one of the most common of which starts with the question: “Are games art?”  

Oh boy.  Even if you despise games, you’re probably having an unpleasant flashback to a high school English class, where a mildly humorless middle-aged bane-of-your-existence asked you to provide a definition for art, knowing full well that your opinion was garbage and that you never learned to approach a definition as anything other than concrete.  Well, maybe you liked your English teacher, but I suspect that this particular classroom experience was less than enlightening. There are a number of good discussions (on the Internet, in scholarly publication, within art itself) on what art is–I won’t address any of them in detail. Instead, I’ll just offer that as a society, we have defined a fuzzy zone in which art is plainly identifiable beyond a certain point.  You know that art isn’t limited to [pictures, sculptures, films, music], but it’s unambiguous that all of those things are art.

This is why I tend to be a little surprised that people give the “Are games art?” question any credence at all.  There shouldn’t be a question.  Every video game and most analog games are a purposeful amalgamation of the constituent parts of that list.  Do people think that the juxtaposition somehow lessens the value of those parts as art?  Of course not!  And, of course, games are art.

And, of course, I’m arguing with a straw man.  What the Roger Ebert-esque character I’m addressing really meant was that video games aren’t “high art.”  Take that, plebs. Mind you, I disagree, but now the discussion isn’t it about art, it’s about getting art high, Dogg, which is innately cultural, which means a lot more anger and a lot more disagreement about what words mean.  For Ebert himself, the distinction was authorial control, which is akin to saying the parts of games not included in the above list are not art and thus necessarily degrade the overall product. That seems silly, but I’m just some guy, so I’ll channel Nietzche: Good (high) art is what makes things beautiful, or at least suitably profound.  Again, it’s clear that paintings and films do that. The sculptor makes his rock beautiful; the musician arranges beautiful sounds–why can’t we do something similar with agency?

I.

“Ah, so that’s where Undertale fits in.”  Not uniquely, but sure, why not?  Undertale is a game about choices, in the sense that it’s a game about one specific choice repeated over and over, of the form: “You could try to murder this person you just met–do you?”  The very intentional trick to it is that you are making this choice in a video game, where murdering people is not just acceptable but expected, to the point that even though the game tells you right off the bat that you should talk to the things you “fight” instead of stabbing them, everyone’s natural instinct is to stab them anyway, because that’s what you do in an RPG.  Usually, people take the hint after a little while and at least figure out how to make friends with the bosses, but, again, very intentionally, it is impossible to be anything other than morally “meh” on your first playthrough (no matter what, you have to kill the king and trap everyone underground).

At this point, there are two reactions: “Whatever, I don’t get it.  I’m done.” and “To the Internet!” It should go without saying that the intended audience will overwhelmingly choose the latter, wherein they will find that Undertale actually has three endings: One, they just got.  A second can be achieved by playing the game and using its mechanics properly (ie, don’t murder people), and a third–undesirable but there–can be achieved by going right off the deep end and murdering every character in the game (including characters spawned by random encounters).  This is where agency comes in.

Choices in games, even choices that radically alter the player experience, aren’t new.  “Choose Your Own Adventure” became a thing in the ‘70s–it’s not like Warren Spector suddenly showed up with Deus Ex, fully developed from nothing in 2000.  Still, there’s a difference between giving players a choice between outcome A and outcome B and making that choice mean something.  The point is abstract; I’ll try to elaborate: In Undertale, different actions (at least in the second go-around) lead to different stories with different endings.  This is neat, but it’s nothing new and nothing particularly subtle.

The real magic is in the details surrounding those endings, for instance: endings 2 and 3 (from here on, the “Pacifist” ending and the “Genocide” ending) are significantly harder to get.  Actually, there’s a hierarchy: Pacifist is more challenging than Neutral (first ending), Genocide is way more challenging than Pacifist. Add on to that the qualification that Pacifist is a happy ending for everybody and Genocide is the gruesome annihilation of the world, and you have two axes by which you’re selecting responses.  So, yeah, your choice of Undertale ending probably says something about you.

II.

A brief digression: A surprising amount of robust game design theory has come from analysis of Magic: The Gathering.  If you’re talking about designing art based around the choices people make, you’re presumably interested in why they’re making those choices, which is why Mark Rosewater’s (or WotC R&D’s) codification of player archetypes (one of a number of similar efforts–I feel this one is generally the best) is so helpful for dissecting something like Undertale.

For those not familiar, Wizards of the Coast categorizes its players into the archetypes Timmy, Johnny, and Spike.  Timmy is interested in feeling powerful (see also: flashy), Johnny is interested in feeling clever (see also: unique), and Spike is interested in winning (see also: obsessive self-improvement).  Standard disclaimers apply: These are archetypes, not people. No one is all Timmy or all Johnny, etc.; they are tools we can use to organize the drives that people actually have when they’re at play.  Likewise, not all games will appeal to all of these drives. Johnny doesn’t much care for Pong.  And Spike doesn’t give a fuck about No Man’s Sky.

Undertale, meanwhile, has two major game systems.  The first is a fairly standard explore-and-dialogue, a la every JRPG ever.  The second is bullet hell. Due to the Internet, Johnny has to try to care about either (someone has to write all the stuff on the Internet, but he’s gotta be on the bleeding edge or it doesn’t really matter).  Meanwhile Timmy can get invested in the game’s characters and secrets, but the bullet hell dancing he has do for them is *whatever*. So Spike commits genocide because doing so makes him the best at “playing the game,” where “playing the game” equals “getting the trickiest ending and beating its hardest level”.  Why does he do this? Because if he’s the best, he “can”. And to prove it, he “has to”.

One might say that Toby Fox is an uncanny judge of character, and while doing so certainly adds a moral punch to this analysis, it isn’t necessary for Undertale’s artistic validity–the efficacy of the polarization here is interesting enough.  Let me reiterate: The player’s exertion of agency in Undertale is not just a difference between outcomes–it’s a difference in the game being played in the first place.  And moreover, the path a given player takes is going to look bizarre to anyone who takes another path. The Genocide player is going to look at the Pacifist and wonder why he stopped playing the game halfway through.  The Pacifist is going to look back and wonder what kind of psychopath would brutally murder the characters he spent 15 hours befriending just because he can.

In fact, precisely because the choice is so polarizing, it begins to look less and less like a choice (ie, is it really a choice if you would do the same thing ten out of ten times?).

III.

So all of that is very interesting, and I write the analysis here partly because I’ve never seen it written before in a way that doesn’t make my eyes bleed and partly to answer the original question: “Can we make high art using agency as a medium?”  We’ll leave the questions of what words mean to stew in a corner, but I think we can confidently say that agency can produce a deep, analyzable, and, importantly, beautiful experience akin to film, literature, or visual art. “So, basically, yeah?” Yeah.

The problem is that proofs of concept are great and all, but they can only do so much to provide us with an affirmative understanding of the limits of the medium.  The best we can do is ask questions and think carefully about what we’re playing, and I plan to do just that with a very different example in my next essay(s). For what it’s worth, Warren Spector is probably right in all of his crowing about how choice matters, but it ought to be taken in a broader sense.  And, paradoxically, that means that understanding choice as a design element may get pretty fucking meta.

Top image: Sans the Skeleton from Undertale