Godlike

“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.”

The Dragon’s Thesis

I’ve so far written not nothing about gods, and I’ll confess it is a serious literary interest of mine.  We create images of them, deify them as empowered forms of ourselves with interests, obsessions, psyches, separated from ours by gulfs of poorly-understood “power” but without a doubt like them.  This is almost certainly a cognitive bias: If we can’t imagine gods as like us, then how are we supposed to imagine them?  Lovecraft, et al went ahead and dropped the bomb of “not like us”, but that’s old hat by now, especially since writers seem to have interpreted the meaning of that phrase as “arbitrary to the point of irrelevance”.  And besides the cognitive tarpit, the myopia angle just isn’t that interesting. Let’s change the question: What does a god look like when it is like us?  That is, it was a creature of becoming that became godlike.

I.

War Torn/Rale has gods in four vaguely-defined flavors: the Old Gods, the True Gods, Heroes/Horrors, and the False Gods.  These are not universally accurate/reliable classifications–some straddle the lines–nor are they a hierarchy, they’re really just what (particularly aware) people called specific individuals at specific times.  That said, they all have one thing in common: power. These gods were all capable of exerting an influence on the human society around them on par (at minimum) with a tropical storm, which altered their relationship with that society in a way fairly alien to the standard human experience.  That relationship, then, is the focus for the above categories. I’ll expound:

The Old Gods are the closest thing War Torn/Rale has to a realistic depiction of religion.  In the long-tailed beginning of our timeline, the scale of society was small, and while magic was abundant, mages were not.  Magic was not understood in any meaningful, organized way, and so the way that people interacted with it was through rituals and mysticism.  In some cases, these rituals were merely acts with no supernatural power, but from which humans derived meaning. In others, they drew upon sources of mana in nature, often from animals that had intuitively learned to command magic.  Accordingly animist belief systems were common, and the objects of their worship were, collectively, the Old Gods. They were elusive, sometimes outright mythological, but their rare and poignant interactions with humans underlaid traditions that societies treasured long after those interactions ended.  Still, though, as humans gained more visibility into the channels of power and developed stronger traditions for wielding it themselves, these gods faded into fables and stories, and by the time Spar set fire to the Great Shell of Thago, worship of them had all but disappeared. Aside, though it did not have the social characteristics of an Old God, the Chimera is probably a good representation of what one would have looked like up close (ie, utterly horrifying in a way the myths, stories, and traditions would unrecognizably smooth over).

The True Gods, though they may have incidentally been objects of worship, generally interacted much more willfully with society.  They were not always visible (though the Blood God was), but their interventions were always directed–and directed toward society, where the animal gods of the Old Times probably had a very limited conception of what society even was.  The Blood God massacred cities single-handedly, and his will was sufficient to instill a culture of free magic the world over.  The Man of the Clouds effectively withdrew an entire city from worldly existence, the Gyre overlaid a grand narrative upon the world for thousands of years, and the One-Eyed Crow was responsible for, well, a number of unpleasant things.

Still, in both cases, the gods had conceptual and ideological significance.  They meant something, and society organized around those ideals.  The Heroes, Horrors, and False Gods weren’t really interested in that ballgame.

The Heroes and Horrors were outcasts, generally by choice, and though the societies they bumped into told stories about them, they tended to be the campfire variety.  The Saraa Sa’een was terrifying, but aside from the Barabadoon, a close-knit band formed specifically to hunt it, no one had much insight into why it did anything or what it was supposed to mean.  It was just a monster, it killed people, and then a similarly ideologically vague Hero showed up and drove it off.  In this way, they drove a different sort of folklore than the gods that came before them, and it’s really key to note that this was largely a function of their interests.  They had no desire to interact with the sphere of human consciousness–society was simply an object to them–so they left no legacy there.

II.

This all brings us to the sordid history of the False Gods.  All of the “gods” I’ve described to this point have been humans (or animals) that learned to commune with the world fundamentally in such a way as to give them power over it.  The False Gods had no such talent, no such strength of will or character, and of all the beings on this list, they were the most reviled.

At the end of the War of the Roaches, it became clear to Ka’s war-ravaged overthrowers that his sudden ascent from petty ruler of a fishing village to despotic necromancer was fueled by a single object in his possession: a stone–called the Hellstone by its discoverers–that radiated pure mana, allowing him to create the roaches (likely the only piece of magic he ever learned) on an unheard of scale.  The infusion of magic into objects was at this point a practice accomplished mages knew about, but it was rare, and disciplined practice was limited to a few recluses in the Bloodwood. For that reason, the non-magical layman had never discovered that he could become extremely powerful just by acquiring a lot of these miscellaneous objects.

Not all of them were so blunt as the Hellstone.  Some had very specific purposes, like a necklace that would bring its wearer back from death seven times, or a statue that would unmake any living thing held in its arms in order to radiate invigorating force to the people and plants around.  But no matter how niche their use, acquiring one allowed an ambitious individual to expand their power and influence far more quickly than they ever could otherwise.

And the effect snowballed: A would-be “god” would betray a friend for his panoply, then, fearing the censure of their community, strike first at anyone else in their vicinity who might hold similar keys to power.  Then, when they became powerful enough that they did not have to fear for their safety, the priority shifted to suppressing potential rivals. They used their powers to gather wealth and then placed standing offers to buy any magical items that people could bring them, raising an economy of thieves and scavengers that prompted any owners of magical items that they must sell or die.  And then, when a False God died for one reason or another, they would leave behind a vast trove of powerful artifacts for scavengers and successors to kill each other over.

The False Gods often roamed.  They enjoyed the generally cruel exercise of their power, but the people that surrounded them tended to flee.  They enjoyed–demanded–the worship of their people, but they rarely received it in earnest. They were “false” because though they commanded world-shaking power, they were divine in no other way.  They were tyrants and strongmen, and when communities gradually discovered that fighting back could sometimes slay those tyrants, the most brazen False Gods died, and the rest simply faded from notoriety.

This description is a very precise fit for Judiah, from the linked story, but other False Gods had different qualifications and priorities.  The Ban Gan Shui was not terribly cruel, though her interest in humans as objects for experimentation was not a kind one, and though Le Markhan was not nearly so arrogant as Judiah, it was his excess of hatred that brought his downfall.  Again, their role as tyrants rather than deities unites them.

III.

Every single one of these started out as a person (except the ones that started as animals, but that may be its own discussion).  The path of growth was generally very similar, in magnitude it was almost identical, but what they then became varied wildly. Some of this, of course, lay in their choices–what they did with their power affected how they were perceived, but also note that each of these groups tended to exist at different times (the Blood God and the Man of the Clouds were contemporaries, the other groups had periods of history named for them), which means that what they became to society was as much a function of society as it was of their temperament.  If you live in a society that has no gods, God himself walking into town one day, heralded by choirs of angels, is still no guarantee that he will be perceived as such.  Judiah was able to conquer armies, he caused crop fields to bloom with plenty, and yet no one revered him–they just saw a lecherous, bloodthirsty marauder with unbreakable skin.  There’s probably a profound observation about our society in there somewhere, but I’m not a doctor.

That’s the society side, but it’s also worth noting that the gods’ perceptions of the world end up just as varied.  The False Gods viewed humanity as a necessary part of their ecosystem, the Heroes and Horrors saw it as a fixture–replaceable but significant–but it’s likely that the Blood God looked upon his kingdom and saw its denizens as truly insignificant specks.  This was not a forgone conclusion, given his history, but it was his conclusion nevertheless.

Consider, then, that it may have been power that elevated these individuals to significance, but it was people, “just like you or I–indeed you and I” that decided what they would be, to the world and to themselves.  That’s a different sort of power, sure, but it’s power that the mortal have over the divine.  It may be worth remembering in our world of dead gods that still writhe.

Top image: Pieces of Control, by Quinn Milton; and The Blood God, Hiding, and an as-yet-unrevealed piece, by Hector Rasgado

Literary Kindness

A brief, shoddy manual and some useful reminders.

In 1948, Vladimir Nabokov accepted a position at Cornell University, teaching Russian and European literature.  That same year, he wrote this piece, ostensibly material for his students (though I can find no confirmation of that inference).  Go ahead and read it if you haven’t–this will essentially be a review.

My own experience with this essay goes back to high school.  I read it then for class, found it completely insufferable, moved on with my life, etc., but now I’m returning to the ideas and finding them mostly correct and very relevant to the “reading” I am doing now with Dark Souls and Sekiro.  This is, of course, not psychically painless. Nabokov’s tone is still aneurysmally condescending, and his organizational structures are bizarre, but he’s also One of the Most Important Writers of the 20th Century, so his thoughts are worth a looksee.  Take from the piece what you will, it may not be the same list as mine, but in case it’s at all helpful to you, my thoughts are these:

  • The authors of the classics are smarter than you.

Okay, this isn’t actually one of Nabokov’s points, but it’s a healthy attitude to have and all but prerequisite for digesting the rest of his exegesis.  A more plain way of putting it would be to say that in reading a work, you should assume that there is something there of depth. Ironically, Nabokov himself distinguishes between writers of genius and minor authors, but to assume you can tell the difference is astonishingly arrogant.  Perhaps Nabokov earned his arrogance. You didn’t–be kind to those you read.

  • Read, then evaluate.

This is especially important for works that you’ve heard about.  Everyone knows Beloved is a scathing indictment of the evils of slavery (and it totally is), but to condense it to that, to go in with those expectations sells short the loving detail (sic) with which its characters are rendered and everything else it might say about what it is to be human.  

By the same token, don’t judge a book’s contents by the one who recommended it to you regardless of whether your opinion of (e.g.) Karen is positive or negative.  Sure, take a recommendation as an excuse to eat some tasty, tasty typesetting, but don’t let your knowledge of the recommender’s mind preempt your own capacity to interpret art for yourself.

  • Fiction is not generally not historically accurate.

Uh, yes.  I’m a little confused as to why Nabokov finds this observation uniquely important, but it is correct, and it has some useful implications regarding the role of art.  I’ve alluded to it before, but politics and art have an annoying way of getting tangled up in each other.  This isn’t all bad–politics shapes life, life shapes art, why shouldn’t art sometimes be political?  Things start turning sideways, though, when one uses political art from the past to synthesize political arguments today; worse: when one uses historical fiction depicting politics that might never have existed to draw conclusions about the present.  If the distinction is confusing, let me put it this way: Harry Potter has nothing actionable to say about politics in the 1930s, the 1990s, or the 2010s (I have seen arguments for all three on this lovely internet).  I will not accept disagreement on this point.

  • Attune your reading to the work and not yourself.

Nabokov is much more vehement on this “lowly kind” of imagination, which is a little funny to me.  I wouldn’t begrudge someone emotional involvement in their reading material, and I suspect he wouldn’t either, not truly.  Rather, I’d guess his war, as with many of these points, is against preconception.  If you identify with a character in a story, if you empathize with them, that creates expectations that the author didn’t put there, and expectations cause misinterpretations and distractions.

An example from my own work: If you identify with Le Markhan in this story (and you are not a dangerous sadist), you run the risk of taking the narrative at face value and assuming that his character arc has a distinct turning point.  No doubt being raped traumatized him, but he was also abused physically and psychologically his entire life.  A very salient question is whether, if his grandfather never learned about his homosexuality, he wouldn’t have gone full despot-de-Sade anyway.  Was he on the cusp of acceptance by the common people, a hopeful vector away from his grandfather’s authoritarian rule, or was he just playacting at peasantry?  Answer that how you like, but kindness means recognizing that there is a question.

***

The rest of the essay has some ballin’ quotes (“To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth,” fuck yeah), and deals largely with the craftsman on the other side of the printing press.  It’s a beautiful, if not incredibly useful, description of an author’s own responsibility to his work, but that’s appropriate. Art is a remarkably difficult thing to describe, its manufacture more difficult still, and in writing his essay, I hope you realize he was making art himself.  And I hope we can agree that art has minimal mandate toward utility.

Git Gud

Image result for git gud meme

Since I’m riding the strugglebus with the latest chapter of Sevenfold Gyre, you get a shitpost today.  This toes the line regarding how political I’d like my writing to be, but the subject matter is highly relevant to this blog.

“Git Gud”, for me, is as much life advice as it is meme.  It’s a simple message, profound in its applications if not in its essence, but not everyone is a Dark Souls diehard.  For the game, it’s a response to an often punishing difficulty (for the non-gamers in my audience, Dark Souls is a hard game).  For life, it’s an assurance: Your situation is under your control. Life is difficult. Work sucks. Writing is a bitch. The solution is panacea: You gotta git gud.

For me this is extremely empowering.  Is it true? Probably not. 50% at best, and sometimes it’s more comforting to hear the opposite, that it isn’t all your fault–keep that in mind before you sling this at someone struggling with their mental health.  I open with this because it’s personal to me, and perhaps you might be able to make use of this dubious proverb.  But it’s not why I’m writing this piece. I’m writing it because every asshole on the internet seems to have piped up on this exact subject, and, near as I can tell, they’re all wrong.

I.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has been a massive success in every way possible.  That’s an absolute, I know the phrasing is uncomfortable, I’ll clarify: That isn’t hyperbole.  It meets/exceeds expectations as a successor to the Dark Souls series, its critical reception has been stellar, and it’s on track to be From Software’s best selling game of all time.  But, as I’ve said before, it’s essentially a Dark Souls game, with all of the fuzzy narrative depth I alluded to in that post and all of the aforementioned punishing difficulty, and now that it’s not just in the mainstream but dominating the mainstream, you have a chunk of folks paying attention that might never have played this game by choice five years ago.

Enter Asshole Number 1, a games journalist who patches his game in order to beat the final boss then crows about it in his review.  Asshole Number 2, and a legion of fans blast him for it–probably deserved, if only for the profound misreading of his audience–and then every other asshole takes to their preferred outlet to yell about whether the game should have an Easy mode, and then a vocal faction starts saying that it’s not about an Easy mode, it’s about handicapped accessibility, so it’s a social justice issue.

There isn’t enough alcohol in the world for this.

II.

“Who’s in the right?”  No one, they’re assholes, and all of the noise is the rough equivalent of going out at night and screaming at the moon.  Yeah, I’m doing it too, but I told you right off the bat that this was a shitpost. But actually, the basis for my venom is that there are multiple dynamics at play here, and everyone seems to be getting tripped up thinking that they are all one thing.  Since it’s the most charged, let’s start with the accessibility side and work backwards.

Sekiro is a hard game, probably harder than Dark Souls, definitely faster, more reflex-oriented.  There exist people that, due to a variety of maladies, are physically not capable of playing this game.  “Should From Software make the game accessible to those people?” is a giant, angry vortex, so let’s start with something easier: Is it imperative that every game is accessible to everyone?  I hope we can agree that the obvious answer is “No”, if only because it is literally impossible with today’s technology (e.g. you can’t make Sekiro playable for blind people).  That’s a straw man, but its blazing corpse at least confirms that we are swimming in the middle of a blurry, grey line.  

Next rung up, is it imperative that every game is accessible to everyone where possible?  That depends on how you look at it.  If you want to check legal precedent, a certain standard of handicapped accessibility is mandated for buildings open to the public (in the US, at least), but you wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that games and public spaces are not precise equivalents.  This is also where you run into questions of responsibility. I’ll tell you right now: If Sekiro’s difficulty is preventing you from playing it, you are totally able to install the same damn mod that Asshole Number 1 used for free.  And if the issue is that you have no arms, people have rigged up Darks Souls on DDR pads.  You’re welcome to as well.

If you are actually handicapped, you probably think I’m being a complete jerk right now.  You are correct. I am being a jerk, but as a side note, that’s the type of reaction any system is going to give when you vocalize a complaint that doesn’t line up with what exactly is wrong.  The issue isn’t that Sekiro is truly gated, the issue is that as a society, we have decided that not being dicks to handicapped people is a good thing to do, and games like this are made, more or less, in ignorance of that cultural consensus.

III.

“So From Software should add accessibility options to their games?”  Honestly, I don’t think so, but I’ll admit to some conflict of conscience.  Isn’t it great that mod developers protect us from having to make difficult moral decisions like this?  “But wait, what’s the argument against adding them?”  Uh, orthogonal. “What?”

Whereas the Dark Noon series is devoted to Dark Souls’ literary elements, it should still be mentioned that From Software’s games are masterclasses of mechanical design.  In particular, they have perfected the “hard game”, and I know that up until now, I have been building up how hard these games are. That was not totally honest of me. Dark Souls and Sekiro are not easy, to be sure.  I find them difficult, but I’m also not that good at games.  I’ve had to make double-digit attempts to kill many of the bosses throughout the series.  Meanwhile, a close friend of mine beat Dark Souls 2 without stopping at a bonfire.  If you’ve played the game, you know how absurd that is, but for those who haven’t, that means (with some nuance) that he never once refilled his health bar.  And I don’t mean to belittle his accomplishment, but it’s not like he was the only person to ever do that either.

So yeah, Dark Souls/Sekiro is hard, but there are tons of harder games.  What really sets the series apart is how rude it is to the player.  The game world is inherently dangerous, the easiest enemies can still kill you if you’re sleepwalking, and should you screw up, you get sent back far, with heavy potential penalties to your accumulated experience.  It’s frustrating, and that is crafted 100% intentionally.  At some point, usually very early, you will make a mistake, you will fail, and you will encounter a wall of adversity–rather than difficulty–that you will need to overcome.  And when the intended audience encounters that wall, they lean in.

I want to be abundantly clear: Almost everyone is physically capable of beating these games.  Most will not, and there isn’t any particular shame in that. My wife is totally good enough at games to beat Dark Souls, but she likely never will.  She doesn’t want to, crashing into a wall of pain over and over again isn’t her idea of a good time.  So is there anything wrong with accessibility options? No not inherently. Using them to remove physical barriers is completely reasonable.  It’s just that using them to remove the wall of adversity means you’re playing a different game, and From Software didn’t want to develop that different game.  I won’t make strong claims about the value of one or the other, but I don’t think that’s a moral failing on their part.

Notes on Dying Twice

Image result for sekiro dilapidated temple

I’m now composing the ongoing Dark Souls series while playing through Sekiro (slowly), and being able to note the similarities and differences, immersed as I am, is a pretty interesting experience.  It’s also pretty plain at this point that getting at the juicy, literary meat of the game is going to be way harder for me this time around. Dark Souls and Bloodborne were riffing on philosophical frameworks (Christianity, Lovecraft, Nietzsche) that I am coincidentally familiar with.  Sekiro has structurally similar roots in Buddhism and sort-of obscure 1960’s ninja-historical-fantasy, about which I know approximately fuck all. Accordingly, the following are working notes, a surface reading of a game I still haven’t finished, an attempt to get the ideas on paper where perhaps a pith might become more visible.

Literary References

Miyazaki himself cites the manga Basilisk and the works of Futaro Yamada as an inspiration for elements of Sekiro’s world.  For those unfamiliar (myself included), these began with a novel published in 1958 called Kōga Ninpōchō, a historical fantasy about rival clans of superhuman mutant ninjas who get caught up in a Romeo-and-Juliet-style love triangle.  I was totally unaware that this style of storytelling had roots that old (contemporary with Tolkien, even though the first English translation seems to have been published in 2006).  More research is needed–discoveries like this keep me humble as to how little I really know.

Historical References

The setup of the game is that near the end of the Sengoku period, Isshin Ashina stages a coup and takes over one of Japan’s warring regions.  Twenty years later, the story begins. Neither Isshin, nor his grandson Genichiro appear to have been real people, but the Ashina clan was. Translating some historical details: The region, known also as Ashina in-game, was likely the Aizu region historically, and the aforementioned “end” of the Sengoku period is probably the first of such points recognized by historians–the conquest of Kyoto by Nobunaga Oda.  Twenty years after this point, the Ashina clan was defeated decisively by Masamune Date who then seized control of the Aizu region. Timing checks out.

It’s also likely that the family personas are based on real people.  Based on the timing and details of their life stories, it seems likely that Isshin and Genichiro are meant to parallel Moriuji and Moritaka Ashina respectively.  Moriuji’s reign was considered to be a golden age for the clan, whereas Moritaka (not Moriuji’s grandson, but not his son either) succeeded him and, proving unpopular among his retainers, was assassinated.  Spoiler: This is more than vaguely similar to Genichiro’s fate in the game.

Buddhism/Literary Motifs

I know embarrassingly little about Buddhism, and I hope to do more reading before formalizing any of this, but the narrative is clearly moist with its secretions.  The repeated theme of death and rebirth seems to be a clear expression, but it almost certainly goes deeper. The Sculptor’s obsessive drive to carve the Buddha (and its relationship to his previous life as a shinobi), the relationship between Kuro and other sources of immortality, even the significance of Sekiro using a prosthetic for a left arm–they scream meaning, and I bet much of it is tied up in philosophical traditions very different from the earlier games.

Aside, Miyazaki apparently took a backseat on writing for this game, so it probably will not have the same tone anyway.

Sources for my information include the linked interview, Wikipedia, and Samurai Wiki.

Next Steps and First Impressions

At this point, I am pretty much done with my backlog of material to post here.  That means that my lead time per long post is probably going to be a little longer than the 2-3 day intervals I’ve been following to this point.  Sevenfold Gyre part three is about a third done, but fuck, it’s update day, so while I continue grinding that out, today you get a shitpost of a game review.

Image result for sekiro

Those who have been following my Dark Souls series are probably aware that today, From Software released Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s first game since Dark Souls 3 in a vaguely similar space (technically he also directed Déraciné, but that’s radically different enough that I’m going to ignore it for the purposes of this timeline).  As the name might imply: This is not Dark Souls. You’re playing a named character, it’s a stealth game, you don’t do damage–you just need to break the enemy’s poise–the game has a non-historical story (which I’m disappointed about, but only because Dark Souls invented the genre, and I’ve never seen anyone do it as well), the reviews go on and on.  Oh yeah, most of that isn’t true, I’m just parroting the takeaways I’ve read online, and it’s actually a double fake, because the big idea is wrong, too: This game is totally Dark Souls.

I can quantify that.  Here are the actual differences between Sekiro and Dark Souls (taken broadly, in the “Soulsborne” sense):

  1. The main character has backstory.
  2. There is a jump button.
  3. Enemies block attacks in a way that makes fighting crowds is noticeably more dangerous.
  4. The advancement systems (equipment, stats) have been replaced with the type of thing you see in Devil May Cry (or equivalent action game).

Fits on one hand.  I, for one, am thrilled.  That said, it’s very polished, combat is intricate in spite of its very fast pace, and moving around is a joy.  By far the most significant of those, though, is the first, and it’s a deceptively small change.  At a very surface level, the setting is historical. The Ashina clan was a real clan during the Sengoku period, the named characters don’t appear to have been, but whatever.  Below that surface, we’re back to–you guessed it–more Dark Souls, with all of the desolation, bleakness, and lovely, fuzzy vagueness that From Software does so well, which is why it’s so cool that simply adding a pre-existing drive to the player character alters the experience so radically.  In a lot of ways, the Souls games were framed, defined by that void, and filling it changes the basis for analysis.

Mind, I have no idea at this point what that analysis is going to look like (I’m only 15 hours in), but man, am I stoked to find out.

Top Image: Gameplay/cutscene footage from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. I do not own it.

Fighting Death

Some of you may have noticed the minimalist titles for the art I’ve been posting for War Torn/Rale.  It’s not accidental, and it’s not a deliberate attempt at edge, rather, it’s a philosophical premise that we’ve built into our pipeline, better appreciated with some backstory:

I’ve mentioned before that War Torn is a “dying” world, and I hope my fiction has made its bleakness clear, but I’ve also been pretty vague about what exactly that means.  It “starts” (there is time before, but consider this the history’s inciting event) with a prophecy. The exact content of the prophecy varies with each retelling, and no one’s really sure who said it first, but the thrust is this: “The use of magic will destroy the world.”  Understandably, this prompts some questions. How will it do this? When? And, most popular: Is it tru, tho? And, of course, the answers don’t come clear, concise, etched into stone–they come in cacophanies, as followers and dissidents argue with words and steel over what words mean and what is true.

That’s not quite true.  At first, the prophecy garners little attention from anyone until it gets picked up by the tyrant of a city-state called Spar to cement the legitimacy of her rule during a political crisis, and from there, it becomes the basis for a system of extermination for all those gifted with impure magic.  Long story short: A blood mage slips through the cracks of this system, murders the entire establishment, and declares himself the Blood God, beginning an era of free magic. Things proceed slowly but steadily downward from there.

The timeline goes on for several thousand years past that point, until the world is a desert, and the last vestiges of humanity are fighting to the bitter, pyrrhic end over the last known source of drinkable water.  Even then, it’s not clear: Was the prophecy true? Was it causal? At a literal level, it’s not something we intend to answer, but Leland and I were set on a metaphor that should hang heavy–much like the prophecy itself on the world’s history–in both the mechanics of our system and the characterization of magic in the canon.  Perhaps you’ve noticed in the allusions from stories like The Chimera: Magic is death.

I.

Digression: I don’t think most realize the variability of what “magic” means in different fantasy worlds.  Obviously, it is underpinned by different sources of power–the gods, nature, crystals (wtf, Square Enix), the strength of one’s body, etc.–but there are practical differences as well, and if you dig into the philosophy (or at least apparent philosophy–many times this isn’t textual), those differences are pretty profound.

Consider two of the largest archetypes: magic as a scholarship (as practiced by DnD’s wizards) and magic as religion, a means of channeling the power of some elevated entity (as practiced by DnD’s clerics and warlocks).  There are others, but it’s defensible to say that almost all magical systems are a linear combination of these two ideas, and praxis, in all cases, is an argument. The difference is just whom you’re arguing with. For religion, that’s a duh, but for the hermetic, scholarly variety, the argument with Truth is a little harder to visualize.  Still, I’m not coming up with this from nothing–this line of thought is extremely old, dating back to Pythagoras, and it formed the underpinnings of alchemy as it was understood in the Middle Ages as well as the epistemological tradition that enabled modern science (1).

As it concerns War Torn, magic in our world is decidedly of the “hermetic” tradition.  There are no proper deities in our world, rather the “True Gods” were presumably human (or animal) at some point, as I describe here, and they don’t have much in the way of codified rites allowing one to channel their power.  Rather, magic is fueled by mana, ambient environmental energy that a properly trained individual can sense and draw into himself.

I put quotes around “hermetic” because this is actually fairly paradigm-neutral.  It’s just energy that you can harness (essentially) with yoga-style breathing exercises, but it only appears that way because no one really knows what it is.  Throughout history, various schools of thought uncover ways that mana may be gathered more effectively. The fire mages of the Diarchian Goetia learn that mana can be harvested from burning flames, the beast mages of the Bloodwood gather it by devouring living prey, and the Walking Winters of the Dereliction leach it directly from their hypothermic victims.  Behaviorally, there is a sort of argument with Truth happening here, and the method of argumentation seems to be: being a dick. Think about it. You’re burning down a forest, you’re eating someone, you’re sucking the life from their body. Magic can be used for good, but you can use so much more of it if you’re open to murder.

II.

As I said before, I don’t intend to make the scholarship any clearer than that.  Ostensibly, magic is not really death, but there’s a hell of a tragedy going on in the commons.  Magic is power, the acquisition of power kills, but how else are we to fight death?  This is roughly where the backstory collides with the prompt. Think back to the art titles: Hope, Embrace, Control, Names, a collection of vague ideals, certainly, but there’s a pattern: These are ways that humans fight death.

I mentioned in my intro for Flailing that the history of War Torn/Rale is not one of humanity at its worst, and I really do mean that.  Humanity is obviously capable of a tremendous amount of good (and even more obviously, the opposite), but what’s profound isn’t the capability–it’s the need.  Fighting death isn’t just a human behavior, it’s perhaps the most fundamental human behavior of them all, and if you don’t believe me, consider the way we relate to animals: It’s pretty easy to grok a spider’s (or any animal’s) fights and flights, struggles for survival that we experience in our own lives (however indirectly in the modern world), but how well do you relate to allowing your mate to devour you?  You’ll note that adulations of the male spider’s noble sacrifice are vanishingly rare (2).  Embracing death is unsettling, as a society it revolts us, though the fact that the individual has no such immunity is an important basis for the Dark Souls series.

My point muddles, I’ll clarify: In so many places, in so much literature, you’ll find indictments and benedictions of human nature.  We are inherently good, bad, tabula rasa, but that’s wrong.  We are all of the above, and we are only one or the other insofar as it serves a need, and that need is to be, if not in true life, then in memory, its simulacrum.  Look back to The Dragon’s Thesis.  The Dragon’s goal matches the setup perfectly, but look closer: so does Mefit’s.  That is the nature of redemption by memory.  Even if you die, you’re not dead to everyone else.

III.

This (the essay you’re reading, but also the theme as it appears throughout the world of War Torn/Rale) is meant artistically, as an exploration and affirmation.  It does not criticize, and it desires no particular change. Still, some may be tempted to view the singular drive of a fight against death as something selfish. It isn’t.  To that end, I’ll leave you on the same note we began. See the opening image. What, do you think, is its title?

Footnotes:

(1): For a good example of how this translates to fantasy, see Full Metal Alchemist, particularly the original.  Its brand of magic tracks very well with the mathematical tradition of alchemy as it actually existed.  By its title, you can probably tell that it wanted to be associated with alchemy, but recognize that the scholarly wizard angle in DnD et al is the same logical foundation.

(2): It can be justified with some mental gymnastics–we do, in fact, make sacrifices for those we love, but there’s a brief moment of revulsion when you think of it, right?

Top Image: Children, by Quinn Milton, 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