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.

Shells of Dead Things

This past weekend, I visited my parents, and in keeping with ritual, timeworn in the considerable period since I left home, I picked up another box of childhood possessions needing allocation between the designations of “keepsake” and “trash”.  In it this time, I found a boardgame, a pre-production copy given to me by its designer (my high-school girlfriend’s father) at around the time of its retail release.  It was a spiny memory, hence my writing about it now.

If the game were a seashell, it would be an unremarkable one, chipped, dull mottled white and brown.  It was a physically clever design, but when all was said and done, it was just a limited set of sudoku puzzles, rendered in three-dimensional, physical space for reasons that I’m not entirely sure were thought out.  Predictably, it had little appeal to the sudoku demographic, and as far as I can tell, there is no longer any way to acquire it.  Like a seashell, it’s just detritus now, washed up on a beach, ejected entirely from its medium of existence.

Also like a seashell, it remains as a reminder of something no longer here.  Game project failures are a dime a dozen–even the best developers have tons of them–but this man never got another shot.  If memory serves, within a year of giving me this gift, his cancer returned from a ten-year remission and took him from his family and whatever projects he might have intended as a second swing.  There’s a true but tired moral here of how life (and its grim consequence) will relentlessly fuck with our best laid plans, but what I felt as I picked up that game was just a strange, calm shiver, a slimy, ephemeral thing crawling up from the sea to remind me that the shell I hold is important, that it once meant something.  

The meaning there is not the same as the moral, and of course it’s difficult to parse.  But even though I can look down at the sand and see the horizon of shells, stark, white, legion at the water’s edge, I know the apparition isn’t wrong.  This one did once mean something, and my own unique ability to remember it suggests it’s worth keeping.

Stuck In a Ditch

Image result for car stuck in mud

Not fiction, not particularly polished. Hopefully you find it amusing, though.

I’ve had to explain to a lot of people lately that I spent the night in a ditch last week.  Sometimes, this is because the person I am speaking to wanted something from me the day that I was stuck in a ditch and now will not receive it for some time.  More often, it’s just a wacky story, fun to tell/hear. My wife thought so anyway, hence its presence.

Most everyone has a stockpile of travel horror stories.  I travel a lot, for work and otherwise, and I have a healthy supply of them.  The standard is usually a flight delay, maybe a night in the airport. It’s more interesting when a single day of travel turns into a shitty, multi-day road trip or an attempt to overnight Desert Bus yourself from Vegas to San Fran so you can report for work at 9 AM.  Then there’s the life-threatening stuff, and I offer my sympathies to anyone for whom that category has been less kind; it’s easily the worst.  My night in a ditch was not life-threatening. Rather, it was kind of surreal. Wholly unpleasant, but at least thought-provoking.

As my American readers may be aware, certain areas of the country became intimately reacquainted with tornado season last week, and while I was in the air, one such tornado relocated a portion of my destination airport’s architecture to its runway.  My flight diverted temporarily to nearby city, and as I sat on the plane listening to the delay tick later and later, I thought fuck it, I’m getting a rental car. So I did. I called my travel agent, got my reservation switched to my current airport, and within twenty minutes, I was on the road.  It was late, I was tired, but I’d dealt with so much worse. Things were going smoothly as far as I was concerned.

But you see, tornadoes tend to come with rain.  This one came with a shit ton, and I discovered as I was driving that the highway connecting the two cities had closed due to flooding.  Not a showstopper–my GPS just sent me to backroads. But then backroads became gravel roads, gravel roads became dirt roads, and one particular dirt road, having seen just a little too much rain, collapsed, running muddy into a nearby cornfield.  Upon reaching this road, my car–very slowly; I want to be clear that this was not reckless driving on my part–slid right into the cornfield as well and would not move further (or back).

At first I screamed, not out of alarm, not out of any particularly strong emotion at all, but it was late, and I was tired, and screaming just seemed to be the thing to do.  Then I screamed silently, my thoughts catching up to my circumstances, whirling about the multifold conclusion that man, am I a fucking idiot. I could have just waited on the plane.  I could have just not taken the gravel road (there was a paved alternative that would have taken all of ten minutes longer). I could have read the writing on the wall when I started seeing patches of water through the gravel.  But no. I didn’t. I fucked up, and now I’m stuck in a ditch. I took a breath, part seething, part too exhausted to seethe. The personal consequences of my mistakes were at that point pretty far from my mind. I wasn’t really going to sleep that night, I’d accepted it, but there were professional consequences–I had customers I was going to see in the morning–that needed mitigation.

I got out of the car, wading out in the field of ankle-deep mud to look for cell signal, and as my eyes adjusted from the searing glare of my headlights to the clear, starry, post-storm, night sky, I was overcome by a profound sense of peace, and the distinct thought entered my mind: Could I be dead?  Did this go way more poorly than I remember? It’s dead quiet, pitch dark, there’s no one around for miles. I don’t claim any special insight as to the nature of the afterlife, but if Saint Peter trudged up to me out of that darkness, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. And then another car crested the hill I’d come down and skidded into the mud, and the feeling vanished.

It wasn’t the last.  Ultimately, four cars got stuck in that particular ditch, the last close enough to freedom that we were able to push it out, but still, that left three groups: Myself, a tired-but-optimistic couple, and five expatriate college students who didn’t speak much English.  They all had the same story: traveling from the city I came from to the city I was going to, got routed to the wrong backroads by GPS (technology is so interesting). We called a tow truck company who let us know they were on their way, only to call back five minutes later to inform us that nevermind, they can’t help, good luck, go fuck yourself.  We called the sheriff’s office, and they told us, nicer but equally unhelpful, that no one was going to be able to make it out that night and we were better off camping out and calling a tow truck again in the morning.

I slept fitfully, as one generally does in a vehicle, disturbed, if only existentially, by the apparent sound of distant sirens whined by the legion of mosquitoes that had made it inside my car.  The crack of dawn rolled around. We called a tow truck again, they said they would be there in an hour. They were not. Running a quadrangle of communication between the tow truck, the sheriff’s office, and my travel agent, we were able to piece together that the tow truck had encountered a U-haul at our location (confusingly completely out of our sight) that was also stuck.  Meanwhile, I informed my customers that I was not going to be able to meet them that day. Still, we were in the midst of an important project, shit needed to get done, so while we were waiting for the tow truck, I found myself once again standing in ankle-deep mud in my metropolitan, hipster-business-casual attire in the middle of a field ten miles from anywhere, dialed into a conference call, reporting on whether we were going to meet deadlines for the projects I was managing (we weren’t).

Again, everything seemed to zoom out; again, it was like an afterlife, albeit a really different one, eschewing the peaceful, silent dark for a narrative hell resembling a bootleg copy of The Hangover.  It was hilarious, in a sense, out of place.  I was so ridiculously wrong for that field that I couldn’t help but laugh.  It wasn’t gallows humor. I wasn’t really in any danger.  Worst case, I could just walk the ten miles to town and make the car the rental agency’s problem, but my travel agent wanted me to stay put.  The tow truck was coming, they said. The U-haul was just taking awhile.

I don’t know if that was true or not.  That tense is deliberate: I didn’t know then, of course, but I still don’t, because four and half hours after the tow truck guy originally said he would arrive, a dude–not the tow truck guy–showed up in a bulldozer with a big blue winch stapled to the front and dragged us all out.  I paid him, checked into a motel in the nearest town, and tried to work there for the rest of the day (though flooding and a certain degree of poetic justice conspired to foil those attempts, knocking out phones, cell service, and internet in the entire region for the subsequent five hours).

Reactions to the ordeal, both from my customer and my company, were confusingly sympathetic.  Lots of “awful” and “what you went through”, as if I really had been in some kind of danger. It wasn’t fun, sure, I ruined a pair of shoes, I wouldn’t do it again, but not one person called me a dumbass, and I found that really weird.  I’ll allow myself latitude for the weather, the stress, the flooding, but I really didn’t see this all as something that happened to me.  It was a journey, an interesting, unpleasant one, but journeys require forward movement, and I moved forward and got myself stuck in a ditch, inconveniencing a number of people in the process.  Did I really do enough to avoid that possibility? Do I really deserve that sympathy?

I’m going with no, but your mileage may vary.

Top image is from here. I do not own it.