The Dragon’s Thesis

At first, I did not know what to make of it.  This tome, Hazeen’s darkest secret, the sole condition of his surrender, contained nothing at all.  There was no forbidden knowledge, no power warranting censure, certainly nothing that would save us.  There was merely a gargantuan and sorry heap of blank, tattered parchment. I wept then, for I know for the first time that we were finished, that my dream of Haven was just that: a dream, a dewdrop world, dangling from a dry branch, mere seconds from a ruinous descent to the desert below.

My sorrow was the first thing it took.

As my tears ran onto the pages, I felt a great shadow rear up before me, and, raising a spectral hand, it wiped the anguish from my eye.  I reeled back to find that, in truth, there was no demon, but nonetheless my eyes were dried and my heart emboldened, and when I peered once more over the pages of Hazeen’s grimoire, the first few were stained with a twisted scrawl.  They began:

Human, would you like to hear a story?  It is a story of a man with a dream. You had a dream as well, didn’t you?

I read on, unable to look away.

The man came upon his dream in a time of great impermanence, the page continued.  The soil was soaked with blood, and men ended–frequently and without warning–beneath the shadow of the crow.  In this tumult, the man desired a particular constancy: He desired to remain. Even in his mortality, he knew what this meant–he knew that he sought more than mere survival.  To survive is to endure, and endurance is temporary. His aim was clear: he would be eternal.

The message came to him from below bloodied waters:

“When the Dragon rises, it shall devour the world, and when at last its maw reaches its tail, only Dragon shall remain.”

To remain, he knew he must become the Dragon.

In his pursuit of this transfiguration, the man wrought horrid, inelegant things upon the earth–just as you have, savior–but he learned from them.  He became the greatest scholar the world would ever know, and with his knowledge, he armed himself with the trappings of Dragon-ness: shields like scales, to deflect mortal swords; flames hotter than the flesh-furnaces of Ka; and a great and devouring hunger for ever more of the earth.

They protected him, and he remained.  His inelegant things rose up and cast him to the ground, and, still, he remained.  He knew, though, that he was still no Dragon. His scales would rot. His flames would gutter.  His hunger, still far too human, would never outlast the prolonged rale of his dying planet. It was in the fetid depths of this realization that he encountered the nascent impossibility that for so long he’d sought to emulate.

We shall pause, the page read.  Savior, what do you know of the gods?  We do not speak of the vermin who slouched across the wastes as our would-be Dragon did, adorned with the trappings of divinity and the trinkets of better men.  We speak of those gifted with the power to transcend their becoming–to be eternally.

I did not speak, though I cannot say what recognition crossed my face.  Somehow, though, the book intuited a clarification.

Read on, graced the bottom of the page.

I turned it to reveal a scene, etched by ink as if into stone, of a village in ruin.  The streets were slick with blood and bodies were everywhere: pinned to walls, shredded in piles of dirt and charnel, even suspended in the sky by twisting, crimson tendrils.  I exhaled. I recognized the force–a blank, man-shaped space at the bottom of the page–from which the bloody tendrils emanated. They were old stories–those that mentioned him–but so very many had been told for so long.

The Blood God, the next page read.  The harbinger of our end.  What do you suppose made him a god?

It certainly wasn’t fear or reverence: A great many have commanded those and died wretched, suffused in humanity’s scum.  You might be forgiven for thinking it was his might. He had so very much of it, but since his time, men have held blades just as sharp and died just the same, leaving only the faintest scar upon the world.

Our Dragon surmised, thus, that godhood was that which had no counterexample: It was that which remained, that which never died.  But he failed to grasp the pith of it.  Something allowed the Blood God this storied immortality, and our Dragon had no notion of it until he encountered one with the true potential for godhood.

The page was blank after that.  I turned to the next in hope of more to the story but found only blank parchment.

“What happened then?” I asked aloud, to myself as much as the book.  The answer oozed onto the page, as if bleeding from a puddle of ink below it. Eventually, he realized his ambitions, it said. He became a god.  We know you do not desire godhood, but like our Dragon, you do desire for you and your Haven to remain, no?  Read on, then. For your attention, we will give you the answer you seek.

Top Image: Redemption, by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale
Middle Image: The Blood God, by Hector Rasgado, commissioned for 
War Torn/Rale

Project: War Torn/Rale

My tastes in tabletop roleplaying have always been a little unconventional.  Part of that is probably the way I learned the genre. About thirteen years ago, a group of my friends gathered in a basement and learned that you could essentially build your own video game from the ground up by writing your character down on a sheet of paper and rolling dice.  Apologies to the folks who found that description caustic–the New Times are no doubt very different from the Old. My unconventional take, though, was that I didn’t actually play Dungeons and Dragons for another six years.  For me, it was homebrews for nearly all of my young-adult life.

Enter War Torn.  A little over a decade ago, Bill Masek designed a roleplaying system (the most rules-heavy I’d played up to then), and, as I was good friends with his brother, I was roped into a playtest group.  It was more unconventional than I think I realized at the time. It did away with much of the tables-upon-tables minutiae of DnD and its ilk and instead tied character progression to a single axis: your abilities, which, in DnD parlance, behaved like feats.  In Bill’s game, there was technically a system for the creation of magical items, but in our experience the difference between a new character and a battle-hardened veteran was simply the number of abilities he had accumulated.

As the years went by, I lost touch with Bill, folks in the playtest group went off to college, and I experimented with a number of other systems (including DnD and White Wolf’s Exalted), but I never stopped building on War Torn.  I built a mod that I affectionately dubbed War Torn, 3rd Edition (after the two distinct versions I had playtested for Bill–in reality, Bill had made his own 3rd edition separately), aimed at increasing accessibility at the expense of the tenuously tame balance of power that existed in the original, but I never pushed it out beyond a close circle of friends.  Eventually, though, Leland, Bill’s brother, approached me with ideas on how to truly build on the ideas Bill had set down, and our current collaboration was born.

In the War Torn that exists today (sometimes referred to as Rale), little remains in terms of the specifics of Bill’s original design, save for the feat-like ability system, the names of the stats, and the theme of a dying, dark-fantasy world.  While I may use this blog at times to discuss some of the nuts and bolts of the game’s design, that dying world is what I intend to write about the most. We have developed a storyboard of several thousand years of history, which we intend to furnish with fiction and illustration, both of which I will be posting here.  As with much of my material, the fiction does fit into a much larger whole, so if you find anything inaccessible, feel free to pose any questions you may have in the comments.

Top Image: Hope, by Hector Rasgado, commissioned for War Torn/Rale

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

Housekeeping

This is here partially for test reasons–everything else will likely get copied to the About page.

As you’ve hopefully discovered, this is a blog, made for investment of a metaphorical nature. The salt is also metaphorical, albeit less.

I intend to use this space to write about art. Some of that will be fiction, as a number of my projects continue to be in that space. Some will be more critical, but I will try to keep the subject matter confined to creative spaces. God knows I have as much to say about politics as anyone, but I’m much less interested in having the type of folks that seek out those discussions coming here. That said, even as I’m writing this, I have posts in progress in three separate categories. I will do my best to index them, but keep in mind that the initial feed here will likely be a bit jumbled. Also, see the About page(s) for background info on the projects themselves–unfortunately, I rarely write anything truly self-contained.

If you’re here, though, thank you for joining me, and please let me know what you think. Likewise, let me know if the ads are particularly annoying. I’m trying them out, but I can tone them down if they’re too much.