Saturday, September 14, 2019

Live-a-Live and Being Powerless

I don't think I would have loved Live-a-Live if I hadn't played it blind. I had to think about this. I usually fall with the camp that says a good text shouldn’t depend on an unspoiled reading. It should hold up even if you do know the plot twists and big reveals. But Live-a-Live isn’t that type of work. It was full of surprises, but they weren’t memorable for their diegesis alone. The most rewarding payoffs for me came when Live-a-Live solved its structural mysteries, not its narrative ones.

The basic structure of Live-a-Live looks like this: there are seven main chapters, playable in any order. Each chapter is a vignette set in a different time and place, each belonging to a different style of familiar genre fiction, reveling in that genre's tropes while observing its conventions. These stories, being so different in style and substance, left me wondering: how will the endgame tie everything together? What will it even look like?

Live-a-Live is still ultimately an RPG and it tells its stories with standard RPG tools: top-down exploration, binary dialogue choices, item acquisition and usage, and, of course, turn-based combat. How do you use these tools to build a narrative that isn't just an RPG story in a Western skin? There’s a reoccurring mystery of how each chapter will unfold. What will the actual action of the next vignette consist of? Live-a-Live quickly makes it clear that its use of genre is more than just window-dressing: when it invokes the Western genre, it wants to tell a Western story. Live-a-Live confronts the RPG in 7 different genre settings, and although its answers aren’t always satisfying, each of them is unique. This commitment to avoiding RPG plot structures was clear by my second vignette. From then on I was propelled by curiosity, waiting to find out what the hell sort of story the next chapter would tell, and how the hell it would use this RPG toolkit to tell it. Each time I was charmed, not because they were great stories, but because they were unexpected ones, told cleverly and playfully.

I see two kinds of value in Live-a-Live’s recurring structural mysteries. The first is that I feel a basic pleasure at being surprised well. I got to experience the pleasure of having a long-standing curiosity rewarded with an answer both unexpected and satisfying nearly every chapter. The second is how the game actively leverages the unexpected. Live-a-Live’s genre confusion makes it impossible to rely on RPG tropes or plot structures to predict what will happen. Live-a-Live uses this uncertainty to effect new emotional experiences of types rarely seen in JRPGs of its era. My favorite example of this is the kung-fu-movie-themed chapter, "Inheritance."

In "Inheritance," I play the Xin Shan Quan master, an aging martial artist seeking a successor to carry on his personal fighting style. After he recruits 3 promising pupils, the game tasks me with training them in 1-on-1 sparring matches, letting me raise their stats and pass on my techniques through individual attention. But the master is getting old. I can only train so much in a day before getting exhausted. The question is, then, how do I best distribute my dwindling energy among my pupils?

"Inheritance" doesn’t given me a lot of information to help me decide. Questions abound: how long will this training go on? What will these characters do when they're done? Should I invest in all my pupils equitably, or is it best to focus my efforts on one? Will I have to train up any I ignore? What's the point of this, anyway? Does it even matter? Is all this training just a pacing device? I can't make informed decisions when I don't know what the ramifications of my choices are, or if there even will be any. The only choice is to admit ignorance and follow my instincts. I elect to heap my attention on Sammo Hakka (an homage to Hong Kong martials arts legend Sammo Hung), because I think he deserves better than the chapter's relentless fat jokes. I will have to accept whatever consequences follow.

One day, after investigating a disturbance in town, the master returns home to discover his mountain dwelling has been viciously attacked. Two of his pupils have been slain, and the third badly wounded. Causality becomes clearer here: the sole survivor is Sammo. Surely this was the outcome of my training decisions? But I still have questions. Sammo was the highest level even before training began—could it be that I had doomed my weakest students by overinvesting in the one who was destined to live no matter what? Could I have saved them all if I had divided my attention more equitably? How much control did I really have here? I’m tempted for a moment to reset and see if I can’t do a better job, but I revel in not knowing and press on instead.

The master storms the bad guys’ lair seeking revenge; Sammo catches up along the way. In the final confrontation, I am relieved of control of the master, and instead control Sammo alone as he fights the big bad. When the dust settles, we see that the master has finally reached his limit, and with his last breath names Sammo the heir to Xin Shan Quan. Sammo carries on his teacher's legacy beyond the epilogue, replacing the old master's sprite in the chapter select screen with his own, and eventually appearing as the kung fu chapter’s representative in the final chapter. Inheritance is complete.

This ending suggests new boundaries to the nebulous possibility space to which Sammo's survival belongs. It seems unlikely that everyone could have died. Someone had to live in order to join the master in the final battle and inherit his ultimate technique. Could the others still have lived? Did Sammo survive because he was the highest level or because he received the most attention? Was this the easiest outcome to achieve? The only? Or are they all equally possible?

I've heard people express frustration with the chapter's design. It’s not fair to the player for so much more to ride on a decision than you're able to know when deciding. But often what players identify as unfairness is the breakdown of a power fantasy. "Inheritance," in particular, is making a critique of it: a framework of power means that consequences ripple outward beyond your foresight or control. There's always more riding on your decisions than you know.

As long as the master is training in solitude, I have the power of Xin Shan Quan with no strings attached. For him to transmit his lifework means putting the recipients in harm's way and assuming responsibility for their safety. Perhaps the master's isolation causes him underestimate the gravity, making him as short-sighted as I was about the ramifications of his training choices. How could either of us know which approach is right? In "Inheritance," there are no right choices. Every option takes something away, even in the best outcomes, and the connection between cause & consequence is deliberately obscured. In this way, Live-a-Live undermines the tradition of choice as an expression of player power and uses it to make me feel uncertain, ineffectual, and vulnerable to unforeseeable ills—powerless.

Live-a-Live deals in surprise from start to finish. Though "surprise" can mean a whole emotional experience of an unexpected type. Embracing atypical RPG settings gave Live-a-Live license to experiment with consequences; expressing permanent loss subverts RPG expectations of player-centricity and monotonic power growth. The result is an experience of powerlessness uncommon in, and at odds with the values of, the JRPG canon. More conventional RPGs feel like they’ll stay within certain bounds no matter what direction the story takes, but in Live-a-Live those bounds don’t exist. Playing it is like watching the limits of what feels possible in a game world shift and blur.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Pitfall II: Scene 1: The Great Video Game Crash of 1983

This is a story that’s overtold. Now the domain of wide-eyed youtubers who serve their indentured lives to Google by reading you another Wikipedia article. The myth, recitied monthly: Atari was pong. Then they were cartridges. Those cartridges ended up in a landfill.

Atari, in its original incarnation anyway, endured for over a decade after the crash. Basically the game crash had about as much material impact as our current “single player games don’t sell” games-as-service apocalypse. Both have led to closures and significant downsizing, but isn’t that just the nature of the work? Videogames have always traded in hitmaking and that tendency generally continues today. If “crashes” were so serious, well, I’d imagine our entire entertainment sector would have angled away from hitmaking toward more consistent forms of revenue. Market capitalism rewards undercutting competitors, mindless brand loyalty, and other monopolistic bullshit, so corporations that have the bulk to rapidly gamble continue to persist. (o7 Disney o7)

The “game crash” was a tectonic settlement that occured after the home console market’s faddish gold rush. Established arcades were operating fine and like every year some landmark arcade games came out (1983: Dragon’s Lair; 1984: Tower of Druaga). Yeah, spit and prayer arcade joints unfortunately closed down, lots of hardware and software manufacturers shuttered, and yes, Atari reported great losses. But this is unfortunately a consistent trend in videogames. (Was the huge wave of MMORPGs that’ve now mostly gone boom a game crash?) Fad chasers run up against [nasally voice] Supply And Demand. In only two years, home consoles would boom again, thanks to a different friendly neighborhood con artist, and the home console market has kind of oscillated like that until today. Nintendo got edged out by Sony, who got edged out by Microsoft, who got edged out by Valve? Maybe, except Valve is (probably) too busy fucking with tax shelters to post their profits, and anyway now they’re all together reckoning against closed games-as-markets (Fortnite, et al) that are increasingly making the hardware/software producing entity meaningless.

Rather than a closed ecosystem around allied software developers, the future is getting people to play one game and have them bully each other into spending $20 to get the 2019 version of Peanut Butter Jelly Time. Always online, always invasive. Epic doesn’t care if people download Fortnite off their store. I mean perfunctorily they do, but a sale of a battle pass is a sale of a battle pass. Of course, being gatekeeping bastards and creating proprietary hardware/distribution bloatware and so establishing a bottleneck on must-have hitmade very innovative or whatever videogames has always been the gold star scam in the videogame business. (Google and Amazon are both trying to do this pathetically as I breathe CO2 emissions and die. (That’s supposed to be a riff on live and breathe)).

By 1984, CMB and their Commodore 64 home computer came out on top, at least briefly. They marketed a basic assertion: why buy a console to play games, when a computer can play games and do other stuff too? Now in the 80s, home computers and home consoles were separate and competing. Today, that’s meaningless. Only the dork-tech giants care about hardware; Ubisoft is going to hawk Assassin’s Creed 14: El Dorado Bungalow on whatever people have that will run the game. In other words, the Great Videogame Crash is based on conditions that don’t exist and mean nothing in the current game market. Similar rubber band snaps have been neatly weathered over the years because fuck if nothing can finally kick Nintendo’s ass for good.  

Early videogames sold speculation. I assume for adults it had a proto-silicon valley appeal. Getting Atari was like buying Google Glass or Oculus Rift or something. Proximity to a sci-fi future stapled into a disappointing container of the present. I’ve read Pilgrim in the Microworld and the author accounted a kind of deliriousness and fear reckoning toward our new lives with machines. Having essentially grown up with videogames, I consider them part of the “natural world,” or at least it’s hard to imagine a videogame as something invasive or new, you know? Part of what was being sold with early home consoles and home computers was a break from an established “natural world,” something never seen before. I would imagine for the average person, the kind of software didn’t matter as much as the novelty of psychological displacement that comes from using any kind of software at all.

That being said, investors, speculators; the “average adult” demographic orbiting videogames; shocked by games, reckoning with them, and ultimately seeing no use for them, easily felt games had run their course. The Great Video Game Crash was really a loss of Atari’s speculative power and the reasons for that might not be very deep. Atari spread themselves too thin, made a handful of business mistakes, got catapulted around by the whims of coke-addled boardrooms that have never touched a game in their life, and Newspaper Reading, Ford Driving, Light Beer Drinking American Men thanked god that their kids would go outside again with the death of this atari game nonsense.

So I ask the obvious, why the fuck has videogames historicized the nascent, knee-jerk opinion of retailers, toy-business analysts, investor pyramid schemes, and otherwise boring dads? Whose game crash? I’m convinced that the Great Videogame Crash, the one that gets talked about, only exists in retrospective, a way to explain why Nintendo replaced Atari for those who lived through it, dramatic enough to match the iron anchors of childhood fixation. Atari lost stewardship, resulting in anxiety over a loss of needed authority (again, in retrospect), that would lead to videogames being considered less important. But like, this is neurotic as shit, basically a symptom of “NO, games ARE ART Dad!!” Like, no fucking kid in the 1980s thought about the market and the investment value of their junk. Serious hobbyists might have mourned in passing while messing around with their new computers. Who else remembers the crash? Who else is the crash about?

When it’s suggested that Valve is going to cause another videogame crash by allowing anyone to put a game on their store, the local poster, esquire, is pointing to a vague signifier of collapse that either can’t happen or has happened rapidly in cycles, take your pick. I’ve been hearing this line for 15 years though the reasons are topical the culprit is the same: too many bad games. Bad games are just games and as long as there’s games there’s going to be weirdos to argue about which of them really count as games (thinking of schisms in rpgmaker forums or fangame groups about what makes a “good” game, which games have the correct effort signifiers, when both are relative creative faultlines that Polygon can’t mine and r/indiedev gets to lord over). He who is mad at sjws, or “greedy companies” (but not capitalism), or devs having free reign (that he doesn’t have), calls for a game crash. But what he really craves is a deathlike release! A spiritual death because he put everything into videogame corporations and will get nothing back. This release will not come from videogames alone (and so maybe, perhaps, he becomes a nazi, or nazi-adjacent).

Revising the history around the game crash matters because otherwise what remains is corporation-worship that puts a magnifying glass on profit margins while disguising human effort and lives.
At this point I don’t think it’s controversial to state that videogames will endure as long society as does. Videogames informed by a strict subculture of critics and artists will probably remain marginal like noise sculptures and jazz improv jams, unless as a whole, arts culture improves. People still for whatever reason make the terrible stuff they need to see. Or basically, the history of videogames is a history of game developers, not shareholders, profits, and blockbusters.

"You are no more important to the product than the guy on the assembly line who puts them together” -- Ray Kassar to David Crane, 1978