If We Could Go Back In Time…

Text by A.A. BENJAMIN, Game Demo by JO KIM, Characters by SPARLING

Our fictional Once Upon A Time Machine video game proposal (<–see our powerpoint presentation here) had one obvious blunder. We had a cool game demo but treated our presentation as separate from the demo.

As we talk about hyper-meditation in this English New Media course, finding ways to merge the two would have been an opportune way to express what we’ve learned in the course. However, timing issues and mishaps aside, the highlight of this project was collaboration. Our bouncing ideas transformed into a proposal that mimicked gameplay and a fun intertextual commentary that made gaming attractive to a target audience.

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The Narrator

We built a video game model off of the arcade style and well-known Mario Kart race track design. The premise of the game is that you can choose one from ten playable characters designed from H.G. Well’s novel, The Time Machine. You then race against your friends in your choice of eight vehicles derived from methods of time travel across literature and film to date, all with their pros and cons. Along the courses which follow the novel’s plot, you use items and special weapons to work your way to first place, surviving the clingy Eloi and destructive Morlocks. Our game provided some intertextual game play for intellectuals in their 20s and 30s, as well as sci-fi and steampunk fans. We also took liberties with H.G. Well’s more obscurely described characters to create gender and race-inclusive characters.

The most enjoyable part about this project, to me, was the generation of ideas together and then watching them develop through art and imagery. One thing we would have needed to do if this were a real proposal would have been to fully design our own concepts and/or cite our sources (drawing them would have been super fun). Though we wouldn’t have to consider copyright issues with the aged H.G. Wells novel, we concluded that we could keep the vehicles as direct references under the Fair Use doctrine. Also, as indicated by our classmates, we could have described the functions of more of our characters, vehicles, and levels rather than focusing on one or two, so here some drafts that didn’t make the cut:

 

Man With A Beard
Man With A Beard–Spontaneous combustion whenever using matches

 

Time_Machine__in_Engine_by_natetheartist
Time Machine Sled–Can hold endless items. The more you have slower you are. Items attract Eloi, sled itself attracts Morlocks. Enables use of mace
Tardis–Unaffected by villains. Overheats when lighting matches. Your matches don’t work on villains (because you’re in a box. Basically, just avoid matches). Disappears momentarily. Works best with Medical Man
HyperSpace
Final Stage Kill Screen: In the old arcade games, the machines had limited space and therefore when players got far enough the graphics began to devolve. The Time Machine ends with the Time Traveller disappearing without a clue of where he went, so the last stage could be a “kill screen,” racing at length until the game graphics begin to deteriorate.

Unfortunately, we are mere undergrad students incapable of rendering the game in such the intricate way that we imagine, so if we were to get a chance to build it, it’d probably be less compelling. But it was fun to dream, anyway. Isn’t that where all great games begin? Progress!

–A.A. Benjamin

Heroes: A thing of the Past, or of the Imagination?

By A.A. BENJAMIN

Storytellers struggle to make whimsical what the world makes dull. We foster deeper understanding by exaggeration, by parable and metaphor, or by creating what we wish were happening when it really is not.

When renowned English texts like “Ulysses” by Lord Tennyson and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begin with lamentations of the lost grand empires of heroism, I have to stop and think for a second…

Alice In Wonderland Confused animated GIF

Oh, that’s right! Storytellers…generally don’t care for reality. As a matter of fact, we generally don’t know what we’re talking about. The trick of our craft is to pretend that we do.

alice in wonderland animated GIF

Great storytellers exist because they are excellent observers, synthesizers and masters of their chosen method. Accuracy doesn’t fall into one of those requirements. Therefore, we can make an educated guess that epic storytellers like Homer of The Iliad weren’t on any battle fields whatsoever. So when we interpret Lord Tennyson’s poetry as commentary on how heroic lifestyle has disappeared in the Victorian era and been replaced by a more docile life, well…there were plenty of wars in Tennyson’s time to choose from. But because in real life there’s no Achilles waiting in his ship to take the Trojans down single-handedly, real wars always seem a little less awesome. In real life, men die without favor, without magic powers, and without luck. In real life, no one has the right to say that the man who died just wasn’t heroic enough.

The storytellers sitting behind computer screens are kind of in the same boat as the Homers. Though I recognize the extent to which storytellers go to experiment and experience the stories they create, sometimes we’re just full of it. So when we then sit before our digital playthings to exit our lackluster lives and take up the rifle of the bludgeoning Master Chief, update our Champion’s reputation in Middle Earth, or chase our interstellar Destiny, maybe the desire to be heroes comes from our pure lust for fantasy rather than nostalgia for the heroism of the past.

The real Pocahontas wasn’t this “grown and sexy” when she saved John Smith.

Games like Halo and Destiny put an interesting twist on this theory because they take place in futuristic settings. It creates a discourse with heroic civilizations of the past, posing a “heroes yet to come” question. However, it still leaves us sandwiched in the middle, as if we’re all just weaklings living safely in our double lives. Yet when we place the “glory days” in actual historical context, we find that those who lived in those eras would have rolled their eyes at our perceptions of grandeur. In my Classical Literature class we watched “Medieval Lives” where Terry Jones informed us that the great chivalric code of heroic knights was really just an attempt of the authorities to control what became a steel-clad blood-thirsty army. So NOT heroic.

Just as authorities struggle to implement decrees to improve our current state of life, so do storytellers implement dreams that attempt to surpass our current state of living. I wonder what the 41st century will come up with once they begin to confuse our dreams  with our reality.

Concerning Hobbits: How the Smallfolk Saved Middle Earth

By Thomas Adams

Warning: If you have not seen the rest of the Lord of the Rings series and do not want it spoiled, do not read this post.
After watching the extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, I was inspired to finish the rest of the series (again, for like the 5th time). So I went on to watch the extended edition of The Two Towers and The Return of the King. This time, instead of watching for pure entertainment, I was watching to learn – about the world, character development, the motivations of peoples, and many other things. Near the end of The Return of the King, the four hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin) start to bow to Aragorn, the new King of Gondor. However, Aragorn stops them and says, “My friends, you bow to no one” and bows before them. The rest of the people around follow suit.

I don’t think it can be understated how true Aragorn’s statement is and how important the hobbits were in saving Middle Earth. Let’s look at each one individually.

Merry

At the end of Fellowship of the Ring, Merry is capture by Uruk-hai, along with Pippin. When the Uruk-hai and Orc begin fighting with one another, the two escape into Fangorn Forest where they meet up with Treebeard, a tree-herder. Once Merry learns of this new race of trees, he tries to get Treebeard and his ent company to fight against Sauron and Saruman. Eventually, the council of trees decides that this is not their fight to fight. When he begins taking Merry and Pippin back home to the Shire, Merry convinces Treebeard to take the south route, which goes right past Isengard. Merry says this would make the most sense, since Saruman would least expect it and Treebeard obliges. As they continue on the path, Treebeard comes to an opening in the should-be forest. He realizes that his tree friends have to cut and burned down to fuel the fires of Isengard. Unsurprisingly, this angers him greatly, and Treebeard calls upon his tree friends to fight Isengard. The destroy a dam, flood Isengard, and win the battle to take control of Isengard. Merry’s part in the story here cannot be understated. He single-handedly convinced tree beard to take the route that would lead him to see the destroyed forest and make Treebeard realize that this was their fight. If Merry had not convinced Treebeard to turn around, Isengard would have been left unscathed and many of the following events would have never occurred and the rings may never had been destoryed.

Pippin

in The Return of the King, Pippin accompanies Gandalf to Minas Tirith to convince the Steward of Gondor to ready his armies for battle and call to Rohan for aid. This battle would be the last battle to determine the survival of Men in Middle Earth. After a conversation with the very stubborn steward of Gondor, Gandalf is unable to convince him to light the Beacons of Gondor, which would signal to Rohan that Gondor calls for military aid. Gandalf has another plan. Using Pippin’s size to their advantage, Gandalf instructs Pippin to climb the beacon’s spire and light the flame himself. Pippin is able to do this successfully and alert Rohan to their need for help. Eventually, the message reaches Rohan and they ride out for battle. If Pippin did not accompany Gandalf to Minas Tirith (the reason for which is another story in itself) and if Pippin was not able to successfully light the beacon unseen, Rohan would have never made it to the battle for Minas Tirith, and the Realm of Men would surely have fallen.

Sam

There’s so much that can be said about Sam that it is really difficult to focus on one particular instance that had the most influence. But after watching the Return of the King, there is definitely one that comes to mind. After Sam is banished from the quest by Frodo (for supposedly eating all the lembas bread and wanting the ring for himself), Frodo and Smeagle venture into the Spider’s tunnels. Smeagle did this so the Spider would eat Frodo, and Smeagle could then take the ring for himself. As Sam is venturing back down the Stairs, he sees the lembas bread remains that Smeagle threw over the edge. This was the turning point for Sam, as he knew Smeagle had ulterior motives and would end up killing Frodo for the ring. Sam starts back up the Stairs to save Frodo. Sam gets there just in time to stop the Spider from eating Frodo (who is paralyzed at this point). He battles with the spider and eventually wins, defending Frodo for the time being. Unfortunately, some Orc come near, Sam hides, and they take Frodo’s body to their nearby tower and Sam follows. Once again, the Uruk-hai and Orc begin fighting among each other. Sam takes this opportunity to head up the tower and defeat a few foes before getting to Frodo just in time. Had Sam not gone back to help Frodo, and successfully fought off the Spider and Orc, Frodo would have never made it out alive and the ring would have not been destroyed – and worse, would have probably fallen right into the hands of the Enemy.

Frodo

Since Frodo’s main purpose is to carry the ring and destroy it, it would make sense that this is his most important task. Frodo did not have as many “breakout” moments as the other hobbits in the movie. On the contrary, he slowly just became more and more corrupted by the ring and eventually tried to take the ring for himself while standing at the edge of the fires of Mt. Doom. However, against all odds and with the help of a few friends, Frodo was able to get the ring to Mordor and get the ring destroyed, ending the battle against Sauron and his forces – solidifying the victory for Man. Frodo was never suppose to make it to Mordor alive, much less actually destroy the ring, but he did it. And that’s the most important thing that could have been done.

When the Men of Gondor bow to the four hobbits at the end of the Return of the King, it is very much deserved. Their actions throughout the story single-handedly turned the tides of battle back into their favor and eventually ended the war. Had they not been successful with their respective tasks, Middle Earth would have surely been taken over by Sauron and his evil forces. Of course, many other characters had influence on the outcome of Middle Earth, but it is most certainly true that the smallest persons had the largest impact.

The Evolution of Video Games and the Diminishing Relevance of Failure

By Thomas Adams

In class, we began discussing failure in video games. The most common version of failure in video games in gameplay failure. Gameplay failure is when the player fails to complete a task that he/she must complete in order to progress in the game. This could be failing to solve a puzzle (e.g. Portal), dying to enemies (Halo), or even losing a match against an opponent (League of Legends).  I will breakdown the evolution of games over time and show how failure in video games became less harsh and more importantly, different.

Thinking back to early video games, we have to look at the arcade genre. Because of the video game infrastructure at the time, these games were meant to be played at an arcade, not in your home. As such, these games were meant to be played for a few (but possible several) minutes at a time to allow for others to have a chance to play as well. Thus, the games had to be developed in such a way that allowed for meaningful gameplay progression, but also had a “hard-capped” end. For example, Donkey Kong allowed players to play the game for as long as they could, while they still had enough lives left. Of course, the game increased in difficulty and most players could never really play too long.

As companies began developing in-house consoles, like the NES, the gameplay paradigm followed. Many games for the NES still had a very “hard-capped” ending. Super Mario Bros., for example, had a similar structure to Donkey Kong. The player could progress as far as he/she wanted until they ran out of lives or beat the game. Having played the game myself, it is very disheartening to see yourself progress really close to the end, and then lose your last life. That’s it. Game Over. Now restart from the beginning.

As technology grew in the 90s, games could become more sophisticated. Developers could begin creating non-linear story lines and program 3 dimensional worlds. Take the Nintendo 64 games for example. Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 both became more forgiving when a player failed. Simply getting hit by an enemy didn’t mean death. Players began having health pools to take more than a few rounds of damage. Players also still had multiple lives. However, these two games in particular still had “Game Over” screens when a player completely died for the last time. (here is one for Banjo-Kazooie). As you can see, these game over screen are very disheartening and showing the player the results of their failures.

Fast forward another 10 years to the 2000s and even today. Technology has allowed us to put more content in games than ever thought imaginable. This new emphasis on content and story-driven games allows developers to be extremely forgiving with gameplay failure. This is mutually beneficial for both players and developers. The players get to continue their game without harsh penalty while also getting to access all the cool content that the developers spent millions of dollars on. It only makes sense, right? Why would a company spend that much resources on game content if the punishment for for gameplay failure was never getting to experience any of it? Nowadays, with huge thanks to advancement of technology, failure is almost irrelevant because of the willingness for developers to be forgiving and the perseverance of players in order to progress in those games.

Failure in Payoff in “Interactive” Media

This week, I was very intrigued by our discussion of the “doomed quest.” This idea is particularly pertinent to our reading of “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” where the narrator sets out on his journey with full knowledge that even if he ‘succeeds’ (reaches the end), he will die. The fated tragedy is not unique to this story, however; in literature, the hero “loses” all the time. Sometimes they die in battle, other times they just don’t get the girl. But in literature the ending isn’t always a happy one, and readers generally accept this.

In gaming, however, the “doomed quest” takes a different form. Game players enter the game knowing that they’ll inevitably fail some levels, but can usually count on the possibility of beating the game, of being ultimately successful. But we’re less keen on starting a game if the end of the journey leads to failure. And this makes sense: why would anyone engage in gaming if there wasn’t a final payoff?

The concept of a “payoff” is also very intriguing, and I’m curious what you all more experienced gamers make of this notion. Payoff seems to take different forms in different mediums: in literature and film, the user (reader or viewer) wants to finish and understand the story. No one starts a book or watches a movie to be rewarded for their work. But in video games, there has to be something more, something that makes the user feel like the gameplay was worth his or her time.

What causes this distinction? Why do users feel like they deserve something ‘more’ out of playing a game than ingesting other media? One easy answer is that video games are more “interactive,” and thus the user feels more personally connected to the outcome of the game. But are literature or film (or any other medium) not also interactive? And looking forward, could literature and film (or painting, radio, etc.) not evoke these same feelings of attachment and need for “payoff”?

One distinction that should be made is that there are two (and possibly more) potential “failures” in any media: the user (reader/player/etc.) failing because of their interaction with the media, and the narrative ‘failing’ itself. I had initially thought that the second didn’t apply to video games, because in my amateur experience the character always wins (or, the character is fused with the user, so if the user “wins,” the character is automatically victorious). However, I found think listing, “13 Games Where the Main Character Dies.” (*Spoiler alert, obviously*) http://www.gamesradar.com/13-games-where-the-main-character-dies/ I’m interested in y’all’s thoughts on if a “payoff” still exists in games where the narrative “fails,” even if the user “wins.”

-Emma Baker

A Story About My Failure

By A. A. BENJAMIN

There’s a game sitting in my Steam queue that I haven’t played for months. I’ve gotten to the very last level, and just can’t get across this dreaded chasm.

A Story About My Uncle

It’s called A Story About My Uncle, and trying to “grapple” with computer keys and a touch pad didn’t drive me nuts until this stage. In class on Thursday I was struck by the “I don’t care if I fail” consensus. It was so interesting to me, to see how a person can be both competitive and yet so careless about failure. Commence brain malfunction in 5…4…3…

I think I have a problem. I have diagnosed myself with “sore-loser” syndrome. It’s not that I kick my feet and whine about how it’s not fair or that the computer “cheated.” I just give up. I tell myself I can’t bear to get so far again, just to have to do it again, and again, and again. I tell myself I have to drastically change my strategy each time rather than just trying the same strategy again with more patience. So, A Story About My Uncle sits in my queue undefeated indefinitely. (A quick note: I absolutely love these kinds of simplistic games for their visuals and story lines…quite stimulating for an aspiring author. But that’s another story.)

Oh, but it doesn’t end there! My relationship with LOTRO began with me blazing through the Intro and Prologue. What did you say? I can do side quests? You mean stop and help those peasants with their remedial chores? BAHA! I think not…But first came the warg, when I got too cocky curious. Then came the marsh, where some short marsh thing blasted me with a firebomb and I almost ran away crying. Almost. Then came Bree, and all the smack of reality that comes after it. I found myself dying. Once, twice, three times, nooo! Then I was not only dying, but failing quests. Then not only failing quests, but having quests lined up in red because my level was so “embarrassingly” low. And don’t even talk to me about the Old Forest. The last time I just tried to make it out alive with a bucket of water, and when I finally made my last steps toward victory, time ran out and the bucket disappeared. You can probably guess I haven’t gone back to try again. Then I killed a little girl, Leila, because I wasn’t prepared to fight every living breathing thing in the Barrow Downs as she dragged me around looking for her cloak. (At least she did find her cloak. At least she was nice and warm when the skeletons got her.)

Then, THEN—for goodness sake— I couldn’t even figure out the CHICKEN RUN. I finished all the prerequisite quests but failed in the part that really matters. Why? Because it was late, and I was too frustrated to even process information properly.

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Yep. I logged out with the chicken run literally right in front of my face, because I was too frustrated to pay attention. “But where’s the race?!” *Puts on dunce cap and goes to sit in a corner.* I’m beginning to wonder if this is a “real life” problem.

If how we behave in video games reflects our reality, I’m going to hit a mid-life crisis real soon. That’s why our discussion last class struck me. If we can theorize that gamers are more inclined to take risks and make waves, what does that say about discouraged gamers? What about those “when I’m good, I’m great, and when I’m bad, I’m terrible” people? There’s no in-between. Which is quite a premature attitude to have. Ironically this attitude appears to be a recent installation in my life, because some years ago when I cared less about pride and more about fun, I completed more games.Therefore, I’m assigning myself an era of reform in gaming. To all who claim that gaming sucks us out of reality, I’d like to be the counterpoint. Perhaps gaming puts the deeper reality we can’t see, touch, or feel right in our faces.

True Life: I’m a LOTRO Addict

I am very proud of myself… I’ve made excellent strides in the gaming world. For those of you that don’t remember, I am the newbiest of newbs (the writer who basically had only played iphone games), so when I downloaded LOTRO and was told that it would be a part of my grade for the course, I was wary at first. Initially, I struggled with the controls of the game, not realizing that the arrow keys could be used in place of the “a” “s” “d” and “w” keys for movement; not being able to move with ease was frustrating and really put a damper on my enjoyment of the game. Another issue I had at first was navigation through the game with the quests. I did not realize that one merely had to follow the glowing ring on the map to find the next part of the quest, and because of this, the going was excruciatingly slow. A silver lining the this issue was that I learned how to move before I learned how to navigate, and so I spent a long time fighting wolves in Thorin’s realm and reached a higher level by the end of the intro period that most. On the issue of navigation, I wish that staying on the epic quest line would be more self-explanatory because I’ve spent a lot of time doing side quests that I would in some cases prefer to avoid.

With that being said, these were just issues I had at the beginning of my journey. Since I’ve managed to get over these problems, I have become completely enamored with the game. If I’m waiting around, I play the game. If I’m bored, I’ll play the game. Not feeling like going out on the town? I’ll visit the Prancing Pony in Bree. I am seriously getting addicted to LOTRO!

One aspect I really love is the role playing. I love the fact that I can customize my character’s wardrobe and appearance, as well as the specific skills I can gain as an Elf Champion. I think one reason why this part of the game is so appealing is due to the fact that I am an English major and avid reader. When I am reading (especially in the Lord Of The Rings series) I can imagine myself in the protagonist’s position and wish I were apart of the action. By playing LOTRO, I am able to engage with the narrative in a way that has never been open to me before, and that helps to fulfill this desire.

Additionally, the quests provide just enough challenge to be fun and engaging, but are not difficult to the point that I want to abandon them as a lost cause. Even if my character dies, I feel like I can evaluate my performance and improve enough to give the challenge another go and ultimately be successful. While this game isn’t as strongly based on learning as the game Braid was, I still think it is an important factor here. In playing this game, you learn new strategies to help you play more efficiently and creatively.

One thing that I have learned since starting this game is that apparently Lore Masters get to have animal pets. Since I have been enjoying playing so much, I think it is time for me to create a new character of the Lore Master variety so I can acquire some of the cute and friendly creatures I’ve spotted along the way!

-Sparling Wilson