Friday, December 14, 2012

Kieran Jordan: Rhythms in Irish Dance

[By way of explanation: although I do like to offer opinions on this blog, I've really shied away from anything that might be seen as commercial, even when it comes to discussing some basic facts. For example, I've never talked about my band, the Ivy Leaf, which consumes a lot of my interest and energy on a regular basis. This post was written as a "Friend Feature Friday" for that site - we like to do little write-ups about our friends in the music scene who have influenced us. If you're interested in hearing some of my playing, the website has links to sound files, and information about our album. So there.]

Our Friend Feature/Influence Friday posts have given you a bit of an understanding of the Ivy Leaf’s sound. Lindsay’s post on Marla Fibish and Jimmy Crowley will make you listen back to her playing of rhythm and melody on plectrum instruments, and you’ll have a better sense of how she conceptualizes the music, makes decisions, and puts them into practice on the fly – what she’s internalized, what she’s used as fuel for reflection. Caroline’s post on Dylan Foley could probably tell you something about her own upbeat, rhythmically-driven, crisply-ornamented, and sweetly-melodic style of flute and whistle playing; Caroline and Dylan share a kind of modern tradition, nurtured in Comhaltas competitions, which prizes a certain tasteful technical brilliance. As Armand mentions in his post on piper Joey Abarta, the two of them share a great deal in terms of expressive intonation outside of the classical Western equal-tempered scale, and I also find their choice of ornamentation to frequently coincide in tight triplets, startling glissando passages, and long smooth rolls. All of those musical influences can be heard – they make themselves evident – on the Ivy Leaf album, or at any of our live performances that you might happen to catch.
       However, that’s really just one part of the full picture. Our music, of course, is much more than just “our music.” Whatever it is in full, it can’t be reduced to a series of sound files on a digital disc. Obviously, better scholars than I have gone to great lengths to discuss Irish music as a social phenomenon, and as a tradition of dance-focused musical rhythms (tunes are universally classified not by rhythm, like 6/8 or 4/4, but by the corresponding dance forms, jig or reel or what-have-you), so I won’t belabor the point. What I would like to bring up is how that fact also suggests that our friends and influences should, to be honest, extend further than other musicians. Beth Sweeney, the Irish Music Librarian at Boston College, has vastly changed my understanding of the tradition, and has made available to me numerous recordings of long-dead traditional musicians. She has her own lovely fiddle style, but it’s quite unlike mine; her influence on my music has been paradoxically non-musical. Our lovely friend Samanatha Jones, herself a sean-nós dancer, finished her graduated studies at Boston University with an extensive thesis entitled “Getting into the Groove: Dancing in Boston Irish Music Sessions” (it’s exactly what it says on the tin); her scholarship has indubitably deepened my appreciation for the living tradition, and for our part in it, but I’m still not certain that such an influence can be heard. Part of this is a kind of epistemological question, but the other part is a personal insecurity. I often find myself particularly pliable to the musical styles of the people with whom I’m playing. When I play with Joe Abarta, it’s a totally different Dan than when I play with the Ivy Leaf; indeed, if I’ve been listening to a lot of Denis Murphy, I’ll play much differently than had I listened to John Doherty all day. It leads me to ask one question – “What is my style?” – and then another – “What influences underlay all my playing?”
       It’s an attempt to answer these questions which ultimately led me to choose Kieran Jordan for this week’s Friend Feature Friday. We play dance music, for sure, and we play it in a dancing style, so it’s something of a hilarious oversight that we’ve never mentioned any of the dancers who have passed through the Boston Irish music scene and contributed to our sound. The Ivy Leaf has frequently had guest dancers at performances – we’ve had Siobhán Butler and Jackie o’Riley at a few of our house concerts, we traveled to NEFFA with Rebecca McGowan, we were once graced by the spectacular step-dancing of Rhode Island’s own Kevin Doyle, and Erika Damiana (who went to high school with Armand and myself) will be joining us at our upcoming Blithewold Mansion performance. We love it! It’s a thick reminder of what the music is about, and where it comes from, and why it is the way it is. A collaboration with a good dancer is as rich and meaningful as bringing on another musician – it changes the sound, the rhythm, the whole groove of the thing. Of all those people, however, I chose Kieran for today because I think very particularly about her influences on me as a musician and dancer together, and how she’s helped me (as well as Armand and Caroline) shape a kind of rhythmic headspace which may not be evident on the album, but is much more obvious now.
       Kieran is an extraordinarily accomplished dancer, and her whole story is on her website so you needn’t bother reading it here. Instead, I’ll let you know about the very first sean-nós workshop I ever attended. One thing to consider is that I wouldn’t have initially considered going, still quite sheepish about my dancing as I am, but that Kieran had hired me to play for the workshop. Once a month she makes a point of having live music for a proper sean-nós workshop. That should already tell you enough about her – that she understands the music and dance to have not only a rhythmic connection, but a social and personal connection. In particular, the improvised, free-flowing, close-to-the-floor style of sean-nós rather demands the energy of a musician right in the room, reacting to the sounds and movements of the dancers as they themselves react to the tunes. The dynamic is easy-going, yet rolling and relentless. It was preparation for that workshop which made me think about my music as totally dance music.
     What really stuck, however, was Kieran’s introduction to the material. She explained to us – not a large group, but a few familiar friendly faces – that she teaches absolute beginners by asking them to think purely about rhythms. She thinks about rhythms in the body and the world: breathing, walking, your heartbeat, the sun rising and setting, the seasons. (She jokes that her classes, for some reason, always come up with other examples: eating and pooping! Getting your period!) To be honest, I’d thought about myself as a creature of habit, but never as a creature of rhythm. Jackie o’Riley has talked to me about coming to traditional music and dance – turning a corner from conceptualizing herself as an audience member, to conceptualizing herself as an active participant. In a similar way, I found Kieran’s simple suggestion to be an electric rail-switch. I once thought of my playing as something that had to be “fit into” a rhythm which existed outside of it (dancers need x/y tune at z beats per minute…). Kieran thought of the dance, and the music that accompanied it, more as clothes for the body of rhythm – fitted, but with some breathing room, clothes that make the body feel covered and sexy at the same time. Her philosophy is clear and clean in her dancing: rock-solid, light but sturdy, with a puckish sense of humor and a big smile on its face.
     I could go on to describe Kieran’s immense role in churning up all of Boston Irish dancing into a beautiful traditional froth, and the amount of work she’s done to generally nourish Irish culture in the United States, but to me, it’s nowhere near as powerful as the realization of how a few simple sentences from her changed my understanding of one of the most fundamental concepts in my life.
      Cheers, Kieran!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Trending Now: Halo 4 and Appropriating Mechanics

Trending Now: Halo 4 and Appropriating Mechanics

(or: Things I Really Fucking Hated in Halo 4 and Several Justifications Thereof, Contextualized by Reference to Other Games Which Did it Better or Worse, and Suggesting that Halo 4 Should’ve Just Left it to the Them, Really.)

[Editor’s Note: expect spoilers for all the Halo games, Metal Gear Solid 4, God of War, and Spec Ops: The Line.]

I know it’s a bit hairy to go about writing an article, or review, or what-have-you, about the latest Halo game. That’s always been the case. The fanbase for the franchise is so huge, and passionate at best, and rabid at worst, that engaging the issue can often lead to one’s voice being drowned out by the cacophony of opinion, or at worst, simply disregarded as part of that very cacophony. As such, I’ll save everyone’s time and effort by disengaging a lot of us right from the get-go.

First of all, I’m not writing about multiplayer; in fact, in large part, I’m not writing about the core mechanics of the game at all. I will certainly be considering the way that the designers treated their own mechanics, and the ways in which they deliberately decided to disregard or depart from them, but I’m certainly not too concerned by which button makes me melee and which one switches grenades (which change apparently causes some people to froth at the eyes, for being too similar to Call of Duty, or for being too dissimilar to the other Halo games, and what have you). When it comes down to it, I’m writing about the campaign mode of the game. So, those many of us gamers who are totally disinterested in that sliver of gameplay, and in fact, likely didn’t much bother to play it anyway – I absolve you! Go forth and cherish your disinterest.

Second, and in direct dialogue with the previous point, I want to make sure everyone knows that I FUCKING LOVE Halo. The whole franchise! I love a good rollicking space-faring adventure taking place over thousands of years and in multiple media. I love video game novels and live-action tie-in series. I love the games themselves. I love their world, really, and I love inhabiting it. I’ve spent hours and hours doing nothing but flying/hopping/walking/scoping/grenade-jumping my around the various spacecraft in the games, which have done nothing but become more beautiful over time, and in a very meaningful way. [Addendum, apropos of said comment: the ships in the Halo games have always been important, you realize? Space marines are only marines in so far as they exist in close contact with the ships that carry them, and operate in close support with them. The original games were definitely technologically limited, and for that reason it was tough to see the total vision that was described in the books and comics, for instance, wherein most of the action depended on strategically positioning ships for major engagements in space. The ships didn’t just get prettier on the Xbox 360 – they actually changed in design and function to better reflect their relationships with the actions you, as a player, performed, until Halo: Reach has you bombing around in a space fighter while a UNSC frigate circles around, providing fire support. It’s a really sexy feeling.] So basically, the point of that is to say: I am critiquing the game because I had a ton of fun playing it. That merely highlights that tragic danger of making a really good, really fun game: the un-good, un-fun parts will stick out rudely, like a sore thumb on Mona Lisa’s hand.

Now, if one were to ask more directly why I entitled this post “trending now,” it’s because I wanted to catch people’s eyes with a catchy little hook-title-phrase guy, of course. More importantly, I realized as I was mulling over the subject matter that I was irked by these sore thumbs for a very specific reason – not only because they were poor choices, not only because they were poor choices made by a studio with a very popular franchise to develop, not only because I’m an ornery gamer, but moreover because I couldn’t shake the feeling that those poor decisions were made, somehow, as a result of peer pressure. Other games made these mistakes, and somehow, 343 Industries decided their best option was to appropriate and compound those mistakes. Hopefully that will become self-evident in the writing of this article, but you can exercise your judgment to determine the truth of it; for my own benefit, I’ll provide some examples of the sort of things I’m thinking about when I make the claim.

1. Arbitrarily changing the whole feeling of the controls
There’s a moment early on when the Chief, having recently awoken aboard the derelict frigate Forward Unto Dawn, pries open the doors to an elevator shaft in order to access the next deck upwards. He slides the doors open just in time to be WOW KAPOW hit from behind with crates and debris as decompression from other parts of the ship causes air pressure to equalize and he gets knocked into the shaft and there he is, clinging to pipes and cables, looking up as space-junk starts falling towards him, and the screen suddenly tells you, use the left stick to climb.

Well. This is very curious indeed. It is very curious, because in a rather amusing fashion, we can technically argue that this is not one of those most hated phenomena, a quick-time event (heretofore QTE, for ease of espousing disgust). I wonder how many of us actually reflected on what had just happened. You see, in a QTE, at least such as I generally conceptualize them, the usual control scheme for the game is superseded by another, completely contextualized series of functions. In God of War, that eminent repository of QTE gameplay, that means that the button that usually makes you jump or hack instead causes you to break a ship-mast in half and stab it into a monster’s face, or whatever. This is not what happens to you when the Chief busts into the elevator shaft to climb up to the observation deck. What happens here is, schematically, just plain weird.

:: You are using the left control stick to control Chief’s movement: forward, back, side to side.

:: Chief gets hit by debris and clings to the inside of the shaft, and must climb upward while dodging more debris.

:: The game informs you that you must use the left control stick to control Chief’s movement.

Why – what? How did they not notice this while they were making the game? Did they not realize that they had created so disconcerting a gameplay experience that they actually had to tell you, explicitly, that nothing had changed? That had to give them pause at some point. I found it quite horrid, actually, once I got past my initial bemusement at the realization of the facts. The game does need to tell you that you use the movement-control stick to control movement, because the feedback system has changed, and utterly for the worse. The feeling of smooth forward motion has been replaced with a finicky, jumpy (literally), awkward, stilted confusion, as Chief hurls his Donkey-Kong-like cyborg body from one perch to another, in first-person.

What galls me so much is the question of why. Did the payoff work for most playtesters? Did people think that the intense, exciting drama of Chief getting hit by flying crates totally paid for the pointless instant of dragging his shiny metal ass up a mechanical wall? He could just as well have gone up some stairs. Or, without changing the geometry of the level, the elevator could simply have still worked, and he could have ridden it up a floor. Or whatever! What was the point of introducing so unpleasant a mechanic, for so short a span of time, and with so viscerally unnatural an effect that it demands on-screen acknowledgement?

But wait, we might say! Dan, you’re not giving them enough credit. Surely they are beholden here to your much-vaunted love for reflecting narrative facts in gameplay mechanics, and you as a player are experiencing the Chief’s own awkwardness and confusion upon being woken from four years of bitter cryo-sleep. Indeed, let’s consider a better example later in the game – near the end – when the Chief, weakened vastly by his Big Bad Foe, the Didact, must crawl forward on his hands and knees, like a mere mortal, to continue his mission. There we have a moment of beautiful narrative and experiential poignance, made possible only because it was mechanically foreshadowed by the experience of crawling up the elevator shaft. Right?

Well…meh. It was here, in fact, that I began to wonder how much was cribbed from other games, because all I could garner in reply to such an argument is that Metal Gear Solid 4 did that in so extravagantly superior a fashion that any game since should be ashamed to consider too close a mechanical comparison. One whole chapter of my undergraduate thesis was devoted to how well the Metal Gear Solid games use explicit instances of broken control schemes to force the player to confront a particular emotional or psychological state. Halo 4 has its moment when the Chief must crawl forward, shields depleted, body nearly broken, to grab hold of a nuclear bomb, and to set it off, intending to destroy himself in addition to ending the Didact’s threat to Earth. Granted, the controls feel stilted and awful – the Chief crawls with one awkward elbow at a time, and the first-person HUD system offers you some confusing feedback on your progress – but that’s what’s going! Same as MGS4, when Solid Snake must crawl through a hallway of radiation and laser beam defenses, going more and more slowly as he weakens, all by tapping the triangle button (which was, in itself, a strange if largely unimportant choice).

Here’s the thing, though. The whole story of MGS4 is the story of Snake aging, of Snake deciding that the world has changed in a way which demands his absence. More than that – he believes that his actions have, or ideally, can, create a world in which he is no longer needed or desired. He is old, he is weak, he has been disfigured, and he is fighting a losing battle against men and against time. When we urge Snake onward, crawling in anguish through a boiling tunnel of gamma rays, we are seriously concerned that Snake may not make it. The split-screen display shows Snake’s bodysuit melting away while his friends are overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers in a battle yet raging between two warships. We know the arc of the whole game, and the whole narrative, has led us surely to this point, and we know that Snake’s death and failure are real possibilities. The anxiety and turmoil of Snake’s slow, slow crawl (which takes frighteningly long, in game terms) is thematically significant. Chief’s moments of weakness and awkwardness, however, have neither of these superstructures to support them. First off, they each take barely a few seconds – nowhere near enough time for the emotional investment we are allowed in Snake’s arduous trek. And secondly, the game as a whole does not ever allow us to believe that Chief feels weak in this moment. We know that he has been struggling; we know he has struggled, we know he has failed in the past; but we don’t believe, right then, that what’s happening might be the end of him, and our journey with him. It’s just a moment of weird control fuck-uppery. Maybe I’m out of line in drawing different sources into the gameplay experience, but let’s be serious: 343 Industries announced the game as the start of a new trilogy. You can’t have a poignant moment of loss and failure at the beginning of what we already know will be a larger journey. For both mechanical reasons (it feels stupid) and narrative reasons (it is stupid), the gesture falls flat – whether it was intended to tie the player into Chief’s feelings, or just to be a moment of sudden spiky excitement, it fails.


Hasn’t Yahtzee yet convinced everyone everywhere that QTEs are awful? Why is the rest of the world still deliberating on this issue? He’s smart and sassy! Case closed! His opinions are valid, if not always totally true, and when it comes down to it, his feelings on “press-X-to-not-die” moments seem pretty spot-on. They’re not good. Indeed, another blogger posting on GamaSutra recently described a few horrible applications of QTEs in Assassin’s Creed 3 which utterly ruined the game for him.

I can’t believe this is still a thing. Halo 4 tries to do a decent job of setting up the Didact as an immensely powerful and malevolent villain, but then finds it’s backed itself into a corner: now he’s too powerful for you to actually defeat. Solution? QTE boss fight! Cortana immobilizes him with many rampant mini-Cortanas made out of hard light so that you can plant a grenade on him (yes, I said that sentence shut up). Here’s where my bitterness comes from:

:: The first time I played that part of the game, I simply couldn’t read what button the game was telling me to use to plant the grenade, because not all of us have gargantuan HD televisions. I pressed the bumper, when I was supposed to press the trigger, and therefore found myself treated to a scene of the Didact grabbing Chief and tossing him out into space like a used metal condom. I was not amused.

:: It’s lazy fucking design. It’s a literal “press-X-to-not-die” moment; the screen will flash with directions saying “press [inscrutable icon of the left trigger] to plant a grenade,” and if you don’t, well fuck you for thinking that games were about making decisions or figuring things out or trying to do anything other than follow the rails like a wee cybernetic gun-train. Especially after the exceptionally goddamn awesome edifice of exorbitant space-win which precedes this final stage (flying a spacefighter through the geometry of the Didact’s ship like the Death Star run on acid), the utter and abrupt diminuendo, which leaves you fighting the HUD instead of your enemy, can only leave the acrid taste of disappointment in your mouth. And ultimately, fighting the HUD, instead of the Didact, is exactly what happens. He spent too much time in his ship, doing bad things and hurting lots of people, but in game terms (and dramatic terms), not enough time showing his weird gross Voldemort-face. I never felt like I was fighting the Didact; I was fighting the Prometheans, but not their leader, and the final “boss fight” only reaffirmed this apprehension. You try to foil his plans, but you never fight the villain in Halo 4. Sure, maybe he’s being saved for a sequel, but it’s simply feel pallid – if nothing else, a case of eyes being bigger than stomach.

3. Over-writing

And here’s a shifty one.

(Also, do I ever write a blog post without mentioning writing?)

I was deliberating on whether or not to ultimately include this point, but it was one which refused to abandon me during my whole first playthrough. I think it’s also a valuable point of consideration, apropos of the whole design process, and the whole imagining of the game within the context of a new series within an old intellectual property. The Chief is being overwritten.

I mean it literally: they are writing more lines for the Chief than they need to, much to the detriment of the character. Sorry to flip-flop on you, but it’s something like the precise opposite of the problem most games have – not a trend, an anti-trend. Indeed, the closest example I can think of is from Spec Ops: The Line. I had the good fortune of playing it with a friend of mine who does not play games, and her mind was something of an uncarved block, in opposition to my jaded gamerbrain. Relatively early in the game, you come across a kind of domestic encampment, and one of your squadmates remarks, “Man, they even have a piano down here?” My friend and I both had the same reaction: can I play the piano? I meandered over and did my damnedest to bash, shoot, or however the hell else play that piano. But you can’t. And here’s the bake-your-noodle moment: why did they mention the piano, and not make it a dynamic object. Why? Why the ungodly shit would you explicitly draw a player’s attention to an object with which they will want to interact – indeed, an object whose very function is interactive? This isn’t Chekhov’s gun; this is basic human curiosity. After games like Metal Gear Solid 2, where every mundane object does something (and ice cubes realistically melt faster as single cubes than when they’re frozen together), nobody can afford to talk about a piano without making the piano interactive. In terms of character and story, Halo 4 does the same thing: by writing unnecessary lines for characters, it draws our attention to everything that’s wrong with the situation.

The Master Chief is an interesting character because he’s an uninteresting one. Perhaps, better, a schizoid one. He’s represented quite differently in the novels and the games, and for good reason, I’d say. The game canon establishes him as a stoic, silent pillar of strength – a literally faceless hero, without too much personality other than some sub-military snark with his AI friend, and therefore a perfect avatar for players to project themselves upon. With a game, that’s great! It’s a game, and we know that the player needs to feel compelled by the story and events, and that can happen if we allow the first-person illusion to totally overlay the Chief onto the player. The novels, quite rightly, appreciate that they are not games – they’re novels, and therefore, they demand more objectively compelling characters. That means the Chief can’t have the reader’s emotions; he has to have his known. So the SPARTAN we’ve inherited by Halo 4 is really a dangerous amalgam of these two strains in the Chief’s developmental history, a condition necessitated by both the increasing connectivity of the storylines across multiple media, and the need for the franchise to go in a new direction if it’s to survive a whole second trilogy. There’s a lot going on there, and I won’t claim it’s an easy morass to navigate – not that I wouldn’t have relished the chance to give it a shot myself.

My qualms about the writing are partially motivated by nostalgia by what the Chief was, in the earlier Halo games, and partially by an appreciation of this labyrinth of character which frustrates static cartography. The thing is, the new trilogy is going in a new direction, and should do that, and I fully support that. And for that matter, it has to, even in terms of internal consistency: the world has changed by the time Halo 4 rolls around. The Covenant has a ceasefire with the UNSC, and the human military is itself much different. There’s a new challenge to writing the Chief simply because his situation has changed; whereas Halo found the Chief typically alone, stranded, and desperate, Halo 4 sees him working in close conjunction with other UNSC troops. He has to communicate with them, and that’s certainly understandable. But the negotiation of this obstacle has been handled differently in the past. There are obvious instances in the earlier games where the Chief receives his orders and simply does them, rather than bothering to acknowledge them, and that describes a particular strength of character.

That rarely happens in Halo 4. Indeed, in one level, you get to ride a massive war-machine through a desert to destroy Covenant and Forerunner installations, until terrain prevents your mount for progressing. The Chief radios to his CO that he can move faster if he goes alone, and the officer gives his permission. I scrunched my nose when it happened; my fingers itched. Obviously, the Chief has always been duty-driven, and has obeyed orders in the military chain of command (although…not always), but he’s never had to be so meek about it. The man who hears what must be done, and does it, is powerful; the man who hears what must be done, and asks permission, has lost some of his Nietzschean vitality.

There’s a particularly wonderful moment in Halo 4, which pops up after Cortana has had an attack of violent rampancy. She watches an artificial sun outside of a viewport, and wistfully reflects on how she can analytically deduce that the sun is artificial, but will never know if it looks or feels real. She turns to find Chief methodically loading and checking his weapons, and begs him, “Before this is over, promise me you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.” Chief has no reply; he avoids her gaze, considers the remark, and is still considering it when another character walks into the room. That’s a Master Chief moment, the kind we understand – the Badass Bambi, who doesn’t have anything good to say, so he says nothing at all. That’s a strong formula for a likeable character, because it strikes a particular balance. Chief isn’t a silent protagonist – we know he has thoughts, we know he speaks – but he chooses not to if the situation does not call for it.

This finely under-written scene is tragically counterbalanced by the ending of the game, where the Chief converses briefly with another human soldier. When it becomes apparent that the Chief thinks of himself, and of soldiers, as “outside of humanity,” an external factor looking in on the object of its duty and loyalty, his companion remarks, “Soldiers aren’t machines; we’re just people.” And he leaves the Chief to his solitude.

Chief then takes his solitude and functionally headbutts it in the face, because while he’s standing alone by the window he remarks, out loud, to nobody in particular, “She said that to me once.”

And then a pause.

“About being a machine.”


Oh…oh, 343i. We know. We know she said that! We were there! Probably just a couple hours ago! Who is the Chief talking to? Why? We know that you want us to understand his emotional conundra, but for the love of all that is holy, you don’t need to slap us in the face with this flaccid word-dick to make us understand it. The books give him plenty of angst, but it’s all exposed in the narration; he doesn’t voice his fears, he swallows them and deals with them. We would get it; we’re relatively smart people, gamers. And those of us who are not – well, we’re too busy playing multiplayer anyway. This scene didn’t need that line, at all, and I’m amazed that it survived the editing process. The scene can literally be improved if you, dear player, simply wait for the aforementioned “we’re not machines” line, and then frantically mute your television, so that you merely have a shot of the Chief looking intense and wistful before the fade. Trust me, the experience is much improved by the silence.

Then again, I’m sure people have said the same thing about me.

4. Mayhap conclusions

Less is more. Do your controls work? Don’t change them mid-game for a fifteen-second sequence. Do your characters work? Let them work. Is your game good?


Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Elder Scrolls: quantum mechanics and game stories.

The Elder Scrolls: quantum mechanics and game stories.

[Editor's note: expect spoilers for the Elder Scrolls series generally, as well as Metal Gear Solid and Knights of the Old Republic.]

In The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, timelines are strange. The initial conditions of the game are complicated, but fairly typical, when it comes down to it: there are a few different kingdoms in the Iliac Bay, all vying for power, and a kind of WOMD - Numidium - powered by a magical artifact, the Mantella. Using the Numidium, each of the individual kings is hoping to win ascendancy over his rivals in the Bay; the Emperor is hoping to unify the Bay and restore Imperial rule over the area; the Orcs are hoping to establish their own independent state; and some supernatural beings are hoping to achieve immense personal power through the Mantella. The player-character, although ostensibly backed by the Empire's spy network, can of course choose to pursue any of these goals. He or she will come into possession of the Mantella, and have to decide who deserves what end. Great! All those things we seem to love in games: multiple options, different consequences for our actions, and a good fight one way or the other.

Of course, the problem arises whenever you introduce multiple endings to a game - how do you negotiate the state of the world at the beginning of a sequel, if you want to produce one? The multiple outcomes of Daggerfall are quite robustly different: they involve the creation of a new kingdom, or of new gods, or the subjugation of people under an Imperial banner. The lives of millions are at stake. By the time TESIII:Morrowind rolls around, how do we expect people to discuss the Iliac Bay incident? The ES games have always relied heavily on in-lore writing: there's an acceptable degree of fallibility in characters' knowledge. People in Morrowind (the province, and the game) are sufficiently removed from those events, in time and in space, that they don't necessarily provide an accurate picture of what happened at the end of the last game. This kind of argument from ignorance is not an implausible way of explaining this phenomenon. Other games have used a similar system. In the original Metal Gear Solid, there are two possible endings. In one, Solid Snake's love interest, Meryl, is tortured to death, and Snake escapes with Otacon; the two remain fast friends in the rest of the series. In the other, Meryl survives, she escapes with Snake, and Otacon manages to extract himself of his own gumption. For a while, speculation remained as to whether Meryl had lived or died, and which ending was more appropriate to the series, and to Snake's character, but ultimately, Meryl showed up again in MGS4. The retcon was less a change of facts and more a change of interpretation; it was suggested that if the player had escaped with Otacon, Snake was simply mistaken - Meryl hadn't died, but was severely wounded, and was later found by government agents inspecting the site of the game's events.

A somewhat more nuanced (but perhaps less useful) approach was employed by the Knights of the Old Republic series, in which the player could (in true Star Wars fashion) either save the galaxy or set up shop as the new Sith Lord to destroy it. By the time the next game takes place, the main character was directly asked by an NPC if he or she remembered the events of the original. The player has clear dialogue options which will ultimately decide the truth of the matter: whether the player-character in the first game was male or female, and whether they sided with the Jedi or the Sith. In each successive playthrough, you could re-determine the issue, and explore the consequences of different actions.

To return to Daggerfall, however, what makes that game unique is that it does not take either approach. Instead of trying to negotiate five or six endings into one by virtue of information selection, or letting the player decide what happened on a meta-narrative plane, the solution is totally in-world, while simultaneously a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the problem. When the magical Mantella is activated, it causes a Dragon Break, a magical event with the outcome that all the endings simultaneously and truly occur. The civil war ends in a relative stalemate, because every king wins and loses the war; the Orcs do create their own state, but are also defeated by the other kings; and the Empire re-establishes control over the area. There's a weird in-lore technical discussion of it over at the Imperial Library website which suggests what happens - namely, that when the timeline is skewed, the Dragon Break retroactively changes the past to fall in line with the new present conditions. Yes, it's confusing, and quite a few characters and books in the game devote time to speculating on what exactly happened, and how.

In a strange way, however, the game may have been looking forward to more recent developments in science - namely, quantum mechanics. There's a quality of particles known as quantum superposition which suggests how a particle can exist partially in multiple states of potentiality, due to the way probabilities overlap with each other. The double-slit experiment is the most common example of this process taking place. Scientists basically set up a reactive wall behind a shield with a single opening, and fired one electron through it at a time. So far so good. However, when they added a second opening to the shield, instead of seeing the electrons go through one opening or the other, they appeared to go through both openings simultaneously. More specifically, rather than going through both openings as particles, they seemed to act like waves, which (to put it bluntly) are quite different from particles. If you try to observe this happening, however, the waves coalesce back into particles. What's actually happening is relatively simple wave interference, like ripples on water where two stones have dropped, and the crest and troughs represents different possible outcomes. And this isn't only true of single particles like electrons - buckyballs do it too, and they're composed of sixty carbon atoms linked together in a soccer-ball-like crystal. If you're familiar with Schrödinger's Cat, that thought experiment is basically a way of asking the question, "What happens if we try to apply this quantum mechanical property to classical, normal-sized objects?" The results are weird. Dragon Break weird. In a sense, Daggerfall ends in a totally legitimate way - a huge scale-up state of superposition, in which every possible ending of the game does take place, no matter which one you personally observe as you finish playing the game.

On the meta-narrative level, this also happens in KOTOR. At the beginning of KOTOR2, your character from the last game might be any of four archetypes - male/female and good/evil - and they probabilistically overlap. The possibilities only coalesce into a real person when you decide, at the beginning of KOTOR2, that Revan was a man who fell to the Dark Side and regained his throne as a Sith Lord. But there's a meta-narrative conceit that takes place: we understand that although those three alternatives exist in the dialogue box, they exist because the game designer is allowing us to take command of the storyline in this particularly instance. He's winking at us and saying, "Go ahead, pick whatever option you went with from KOTOR." In TES, this isn't the case. Even the eponymous Elder Scrolls themselves are blind to the events of the Dragon Break. And as in the double-slit experiment, without an observer, the wave form will never coalesce. All possible states are superposed.

Can we find a way to make this happen in games? A way to model worlds in which unobserved events are superposed until an external factor forces them to coalesce into a single state? There's a problematic way we currently deal with side-quests: they're static, or they're static until we create conditions which make them impossible. (In The Witcher 2, for instance, side-quests are open for a whole episode, until you make one step past the point of no return and the game will suddenly alert you that you've failed five quests all at once!) What if, instead, the smaller conflicts and cycles of the game world waiting for you to arrive, they actually developed upon your arrival? Instead of finding the same set of side-quests waiting for you each time, you might that one side in a conflict had gained an advantage over the other - that the problem had been solved without you, or had become a different one entirely - or you might find that nothing was the matter in the first place. Maybe on its own, it doesn't seem like much, but the mentality of possibility could go a long way towards the next step in building rich game worlds which actually seem alive.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Story where there is none.

Story where there is none: how Demon's Souls and Dark Souls tell perfect video game stories.

 [Editor's note: Expect spoilers, such as they are.]

Gamasutra recently featured a great little article by Robert Boyd about the surprising relationship between the perceived and actual difficulty of Dark Souls - a game which flaunts its difficulty, but uses that very fact to draw in (and keep!) a large audience. It's a neat piece which succinctly considers the way the game generally depends on the player to determine difficulty. Boyd notes, for instance, that the flexibility of the leveling system gives the player freedom to play any way they like, to tackle any challenge using any strategy they conceive, and the option is always available to summon another player to help.

Overall, it reminded me that I did a lot of thinking about the storytelling in Dark Souls, and its predecessor Demon's Souls, when I wrote my undergraduate thesis. So, as a companion to Boyd's meditations on how gameplay is fruitfully directed at the player's experience, it might interest some to consider one specific design decision which makes the story as flexible and rewarding as the gameplay itself: the banishment of exposition to item descriptions! It may seem absurd, but that one decision may be the only thing that makes the story in the Souls series successful at all.

Of course, some people will express some degree of incredulity at the notion of the series having "successful" stories, since more than a few players generally came away with the sense that there was no story being told at all. This is somewhat true, but to be more accurate, it's merely a recognition of how flexible the games are with their storytelling. Players can't really be faulted for thinking there's no story, when the medieval fantasy RPG as a genre often trains people to look for very specific narrative markers. When people think of MFRPGs, they think of large-scale games like the Final Fantasy series (which may be a dated example, but remains an example I love for its cultural weight); games like that often sink a lot of narrative material into cutscenes, very direct instances of narrative intrusion into the gameplay experience. There are other ways to achieve similar effects - scripted sequences, for example, which take place within gameplay, but effect situations which cannot be interrupted by the player - but the DSs totally avoid this structure. Other games, meanwhile, have taught us to look in different places for story clues. The Elder Scrolls games have taught us to mind our bookshelves, as the multitudinous in-game books are informative, fun, and can boost our stats. It has long been the case in RPGs that non-player characters populating the world can provide useful information, with the extra tint of unreliable character biases. But the DSs go in a different direction entirely.

What do you accomplish, as a designer, by doing a whole bunch of work creating a vast, rich, multi-faceted world, only to reduce much of it to verbal descriptions of one or two sentences, buried in an inventory screen? Two things.

First, you put control in the player's hands. I think that's important for nearly any aspect of a game, and I think a fair number of designers would agree. A game is meant to be played, and the more pieces you give the player to play with, the more rewarding the game. It highlights and explains, moreover, the diverse responses to the story in each game. Many players would say there was little or no storyline at all; others would say there was a fairly complex one. Both are fairly accurate descriptions. I'd hazard a guess and say that the different impressions of the situation are highly motivated by the biases of the players themselves - the narrative system creates a kind of index of players. The players who are more interested in the gameplay system will largely ignore the story, because they're not profoundly interested in it in the first place; those players who are explicitly interested in the story will find it when they look for it. The story is optional, to rather bluntly oversimplify the point. Ultimately, the decision to nestle narrative information in a secondary screen strikes an effective balance: it's readily available, but never gets in the way of playing the game. Unlike lengthy cutscenes, which deliberately monopolize a player's time, this system only gives the player precisely as much information as they want at any one time.

However, we'll also find that secondly, and more importantly, this system somewhat ingeniously finds a way to bridge the gap between these two stereotyped groups of players (we'll say play-types and story-types, broadly). The specific linguistic form of the "item description" is one particular to video games, and as such, it's wise and effective to make use of it when telling a video game story. It only exists in games, and more specifically, only exists in games which place an emphasis on having a variety of interesting items to collect, match, improve, and utilize in combat. In most RPGs, and certainly in Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, much of the essential activity of the game is in exploring the world, collecting items, and using those items to do more exploring and fighting. By placing narrative exposition in this tiny niche, the designers intimately tied together these two impulses - collecting items, and discovering more of the story. A player whose major effort is in creating a sweet build for a character will invariably pick up some juicy storyline details; a player who wants to learn more of the story will do so by picking up some new pieces of armor or unique superweapons. Neither detracts from the other. Each bolsters up the other. The result is a game experience whose balance is determined by the player, and which will ultimately be rewarding no matter how that balance is achieved (heavy on story, heavy on action).

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Understanding the folk process in Irish music.

The man, the music, and the box: why going back to the source is important.

[Editor's note: I don't own John Kelly's music, but I've given you a chance to have a listen to it. Also, the concertina I've used for an example photo is one of Jeff Thomas'. He's awesome, makes wonderful concertinas, and his website is]

Both of my previous entries were about games, but I did let on that this blog would be about Irish music as well. As such, I’d like to take a similar tack to those entries, and use a specific example to draw out a realization which has practical benefits. It probably helps to know a bit about concertinas, and music theory, to totally grasp what’s going on here, but it might be fun and interesting if you’re not in the know in either niche.

A while ago, my friend Armand and I were playing a very West Clare West Clare reel: the Bunch of Green Rushes. It’s a spectacular three-part tune in a D mode, with Fs and Cs very fluid in their tuning. We launched into it…to find that in the very first part, he and I quite spectacularly played the F totally differently: he played it sharp, I played it flat. The result sounded like getting stabbed in the eye with a cheese grater. He told me it was sharp, and I just shook my head, because I’m not talented enough to play the fiddle and speak at the same time. When we had finished the set, he told me he always heard the tune played with the F-sharp in the first part. I insisted that John Kelly played it flat. John was a noted fiddler and concertina player, so Armand suggested he might have played that note sharp on the concertina.

This is where I tried to pull my concertina-player knowledge on him; it might require a little bit of backstory if you’ve never held a concertina. See, you’ll take a look at your standard concertina in Irish music and see three rows: the inside row, the middle row, and the outside (or accidental) row. The most common layout, by far, is a G major scale on the inside, a C major scale (one fifth below) in the middle, and relative accidentals (notes which aren’t in either of those scales) on the outside. Although, for a music that’s primarily in D major, that may seem silly, the layout actually provides an incredibly useful and flexible system for playing in all the major keys of Irish music, if you’re comfortable going between all three rows of the concertina to reach all the buttons you need. The thing is, older players often tended not to cross rows too much – they certainly did it, but usually only when necessary. Furthermore, many older players learned, or continued to play, on two-row German concertinas, which didn’t have any accidental row at all! If you play the Bunch of Green Rushes on the concertina, the first part very nicely fits into the C row, with a big juicy F-natural right under your middle finger (and the F-sharp cast off to the G row, under the relatively uncomfortably left-hand little finger). So I figured, if anything, John probably played that note flat on the concertina, since it’s a lot easier to reach.

Here’s where things got weird. We went back and listened to the track from John Kelly’s solo album, which includes him playing the Bunch of Green Rushes on both fiddle and concertina. He plays it on the fiddle with glorious F-natural notes, and big meaty C-natural as well. But on the concertina…he plays the note sharp! And in fact, he plays both the F and the C sharp – which made very little sense to me, since the C-sharp note is on the third, accidental, row on the concertina, and John’s style very rarely reached into that row. Now I was thoroughly confused – especially since, in the second part, the C was fluid, flat the first time and sharp the second. This was totally at odds with the accepted understanding of how John played the concertina; while he would normally be expected to play more or less in a single row at a time, this sounded like he was switching rows quite a bit, and in some rather unnatural shapes. What was going on?

When I finally checked the pitch, and thought about it a bit, I figured out how he was playing the tune, and why. He was playing the tune in G, rather than D, and this had totally changed the availability of notes in the tune, and how he could ornament them. G is a remarkably flexible key on the C/G concertina; G major and C major overlap considerably in notes, and the difference – F – means that you can play with the tuning of the seventh in the scale, which happens quite often in Irish music (in the key of D major, that would mean the change of C-natural and C-sharp). That means you have the whole G major scale, in the inside row, and can quickly go to the C row just for F-natural; John had chosen this layout for the tune, simpler and more flexible than playing it in D. However, this also made different options implausible. Whereas playing the tune in D makes F-natural accessible in the first part, playing it in G means the corresponding note would be B-flat – neither in C major or G major, banished to the outside row of the concertina which John rarely used.

So what’s the big deal? Nothing really. But if you play Irish music, you know that there are countless different settings of tunes, many of them with regional connections, or linked to particular musicians. Usually we chalk up these differences to the “folk process” in general – it’s true that this music was primarily orally-transmitted, and therefore allowed for a lot of variation based on mishearing and misremembering. Differences in regional and personal styles also prompted people to outright change tunes to suit themselves better, or to suit the needs of dancers. But here’s a very particular instance of how a setting of a tune changed due to the necessities of a particular instrument: the Anglo-German concertina, immensely popular in Ireland during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Especially because John Kelly plays the tune totally differently on his two instruments, it’s also a neat example of how musicians negotiated these sorts of problems in the past – rather than contorting his setting on one or the other to fit both instruments, he did what sounded the most awesome on either! On the fiddle, he slides dramatically into big F-natural notes; on the concertina, he hits big meaty chords on the B-natural, and plays in octaves during the second part of the tune. Especially for concertina players these days, who have heard a generation or two of concertina players whose ornamentation, phrasing, and style was very much based on fiddle and pipes playing, it’s refreshing to hear, and understand, how someone really plays the concertina with an ear for the specificities of the instrument.

To John Kelly!