Space Fleet: The Game!

Get ready to join your crew-mates on a wild journey through space. You and up to one teammate have duties on board the ship: a Captain to be appeased, an intergalactic war to be fought, and a treacherous navigation system to manage. But what if this journey and your captain are not what they seem? Welcome to Space Fleet: The Game, a deck-building card game remediating the experience of a member of the USS Callister spaceship crew. Within the game, you will discover more details about your role in space and your captain’s true intentions. Does your original goal to be the perfect and submissive crew-mate change? You used to feel so free on this ship, yet by learning more about your captain and the simulation he designed, you can’t help but want to escape. The question is: can you escape in time and avoid the perils of space?

We chose to remediate the Black Mirror season 4 episode 1 “USS Callister” into a card game because the television episode itself remediates a video game in a television show. As a group, we were particularly drawn to the episode because the players within the episode are playing a video game–so meta! So we are, likewise, remediating video game play in a television show through a card game. In the episode, twisted genius-boss Robert Daly artfully collects and harbors DNA from coworkers he feels wronged him, or who stand out to him for a particular reason. An exact AI copy of the individual is placed within a simulated universe on the “USS Callister”, under the brutal command of Captain Daly. The show harkens to Star Trek in its aesthetic and simulated premise, while using the meta-reality of Daly’s ego and misogyny to critique the dark side of geek culture and gaming.

Trailer for the Black Mirror episode

We made our best effort to emulate and recreate the immersive feeling of being stuck in a video game and trying to escape, just like the narrative depicted in the episode. To focus our remediation, we chose not to include the parallel office narrative to limit the game’s complexity. We also intentionally added the twist of the player not discovering that Daly is the “bad guy” until later in the game to surprise the player with this big change. We also chose this episode because it speaks directly to power imbalances related particularly to authority or control – themes inherent in play within a system of rules – as well as pertinent themes of gender, or toxic masculinity.

Our first game design goal to tackle in remediating “USS Callister” was representing a 180° change in the player’s goal halfway through our game. We chose to make a deck building game because  it compliments having a reversible goal and demonstrating change over time, as it allows for adjustments in character well-being and traits through the addition and removal of thematic cards in the player deck. Independent of all aspects of the game, we remediated the asteroid field with its own tracker so that its reversible function could be implemented later in the game for an interesting twist. The game completely flips on its head, and now instead of working to stay away from the asteroid field and fight the villain, you must work to fly through the asteroids (safely) to reach the black hole while escaping the evil clutches of Captain Daly. This mid-game twist is implemented to remediate the surprise the characters undergo as they enter the simulation and have to transition from helping Daly to subverting his control.

Game board design by Ashley Hemenway

As a co-operative game, the system faithfully represents the concerted effort the characters have to make to counter Daly’s egotistical simulation. Teamwork in the face of adversity also makes the players feel trapped together – a key aspect of the victims’ experience in the episode. Players begin with specific cards in their deck representing rudimentary skills and some weaknesses resulting from inexperience. Over the game, players must remove negative cards from their hand and add better cards to build a game winning composition of traits in their deck. In order for the players’ to survive Daly’s madness and the plights of space travel, they must work to improve both their deck composition while keeping up with the fight with Valdack, Captain Daly’s fickle mood, and navigation relative to the perilous asteroid field. The game’s event deck produced semi-random events according to the phase of the game, of which there are four. The events are dangerous, functioning as the “opponent” and causing players to divert attention to the three trackers that keep them from being defeated. This deck is also used to mark the game’s turning point or twist–when you realize you must head toward the asteroid field rather than away from it. The Daly’s mood track is especially evocative of the action in the show. Even as player’s learn Daly is a foe and not an ally, the game still forces them to keep him happy to avoid being thrown out of the ship and losing the game. Players must continue bringing Captain Daly his coffee order, celebrating Daly’s victories, and even kissing him to keep him happy while they subvert him behind the scenes. Balancing the representation of a misogynistic enemy through game mechanics in a prominent yet considerate manner took refinement and nuance in both the artist and the choice of thematic quotations on the bottom of each card.

During their turn, players have a wide range of strategic options. They can add skill cards to their deck, trash negative cards like injuries and confusion they have acquired, play skills from their hand, or draw a new hand of cards. In order to manually move the tracker, player’s can use “Effort”, but in doing so suffer a detriment to their character’s traits (their deck) in the form of a harmful “Exhaustion” card. Players choose 3 actions during each turn to keep the game balanced and exciting. When playing as a team, players decide in which order they each take their 3 actions so as to evenly distribute the cards between players. With these mechanical features to the game, the player experiences a semblance of control, but they are still beholden to the mercy of the game’s events, just like the crew members are in “USS Callister.” 

Game artwork by Helen Loda

A challenge we faced in designing the game was balancing game complexity and meaningful choices. The twist in the game is revealed after the first play through, but we still wanted the game to be fun to play multiple times. On top of this, we wanted someone who was playing through the first time to be able to understand all of the rules. While complexity makes the game more fun to play multiple times, it can make the first play through overwhelming and even discourage some from trying a game at all. We had to balance where to add meaningful choices to the game which add complexity, and where to streamline processes which were distracting from the core experience we sought to deliver. Some key decisions were adding a variety of new skills that can be added to give the game enjoyment over repeated plays, the semi-random nature of the event deck to retain surprise, and the ability to change the starting difficulty for veteran players seeking a heightened challenge. These are the final rules we decided on: Space Fleet: The Game Rule Book.

As far as design and aesthetics of the physical game are concerned, we decided to reflect the comic-book flair of the television episode alongside dramatic stills from the show itself. We used comic book fonts on the board, and we hand-drew the Space Fleet comic logo that was briefly shown in the episode. We also used an art style that added a more modern, digital finish for the cartoon crew, staying true to the outfits worn in the source material. After the card backs, crew, and board were drawn, stills were added to fill in other more minor images on the cards, such that the entire game would reflect the aesthetic of the setting in which it takes place.

Game board design by Ashley Hemenway

Our greatest challenge in creating the game was working together to create a tangible product when we couldn’t work together in person. For example, we had to figure out how to let one person create a board, another create card art, and another put the finished product together. The solution we decided on – shipping the board and doing digital art for the cards – meant that the board and cards were not together until later in the project. This meant that it was difficult to get footage of the game for a trailer until late in the process. Communication between seven group members, who ended up in different time zones for the final week of production, sometimes proved difficult as well. In distinguishing between real vs fiction elements of the experience, those group members creating the rules (real) were different than the ones creating the art (fiction). As all communication was done over zoom and text, clarification questions were frequently needed. We showed each other reference photos throughout the design process, and we reviewed the source material together beforehand. When designing the game, the story behind the rules was given high priority, but the actual implementation of aspects of the story through card art and board design were done by people even as the rules were being developed and finalized. In the end, we were able to communicate effectively over Zoom and text to collaborate on the game, but it was a significant challenge. We learned how to keep the theming of the game consistent with these communication challenges (Zoom, distance, time zones) in place — we were able to take all of our individual contributions to the game and make them highly cohesive to create a final product that visually captures the essence of the game and the episode’s shared themes. 

If this blog post was not enough to make you want to play Space Fleet: The Game, we hope this trailer will do the trick!

Our trailer for Space Fleet: The Game

Thanks for reading/watching,

Group 3: Maya Diaz, Stone Edwards, Davis Glen Ellis, Ashley Hemenway, Dylan Kistler, Helen Loda, and Emma Waldman

Credits:

Trailer Production: Maya Diaz and Stone Edwards

Game Mechanics/Rules: Davis Glen Ellis and Dylan Kistler

Game Artwork: Helen Loda

Game Board Assembly: Ashley Hemenway

Card Assembly: Stone Edwards

Card Design: Dylan Kistler and Maya Diaz

Game Design Document: Maya Diaz, Davis Glen Ellis, Ashley Hemenway, Dylan Kistler, Helen Loda, and Emma Waldman

13 Sentinels: A Love Letter to Science Fiction

Around mid-September, a friend messaged me asking if I knew anything about a video game that was trending on Twitter.  I opened the app myself to find that a small studio’s latest PS4 release was not only getting rave reviews, but that industry giants such as Super Smash Bros’ Masahiro Sakurai and Nier: Automata’s Yoko Taro had gone out of the way to praise the game.

Vanillaware’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a hard game to describe.  Not only does its mix and match video game genres, but it also drops you right into a complex mystery with the objective of spending the next 30-40 hours untangling it.  Most of the fun comes from discovering different elements on your own, so if you are sensitive to spoilers, I suggest you stop reading this blog post right now and consider playing the game yourself.  However, because I understand how hard it is to trust a recommendation of literally, “just play it yourself, dude,” I’ll do my best to sum up the appeal of the game without revealing too many secrets.

One of the first things you see when you boot up the game: the title screen. If you don’t want any more info than this, turn back now.

13 Sentinels is best summarized as a love letter to pulp science fiction.  Every subject you can think of—giant robots, time-travel, clones, AI—is included with childlike enthusiasm.  The writers clearly adore the genre and delight in paying homage to as many classics as they can.  However, despite these nods to past works, 13 Sentinels still manages to forge its own unique identity.

One of the ways this is most evident is through how the game is structured.  After a prologue introduces you to a few storylines, the game gets divided into three sections: Remembrance, Destruction, and Analysis.  Remembrance is where most of the narrative takes place.  You choose a protagonist to follow and then play as them, exploring their environment and talking to others to gather more information.  Destruction meanwhile leans more heavily into its real-time strategy elements.  You divide the protagonists up into teams and defend important defensive points from waves of enemies for up to two minutes.  Then in Analysis, all the events of the game are organized into one big timeline and you can unlock additional informational files on different characters and plot elements.

Remembrance Mode: before you select which character you want to follow, you can check to see how much of their story you’ve seen.

If you’re confused over which part is the “main game,” that’s the point.  While there are some checkpoints to keep the truly endgame spoilers away from newcomers, 13 Sentinels gives the player the choice and agency to pace the game however they want.  There really is no one right or intended way to play the game: exploring not only different locations, but concepts and mysteries is where the fun comes in.  For much of the game, you’re given more questions than answers.  And while eventually the story manages to resolve itself, 13 Sentinels gives you the chance to put together many plot points ahead of time if you’re an observant player.  While many of its characters are charming and likeable, much of my enjoyment came from those “aha!” moments I got when I finally figured out one piece of the plot.

Destruction Mode: surprisingly all the explosions and flashing lights are easier to process than some of the plot twists this game will throw at you.

It can be an overwhelming experience, but eventually a set of themes began to emerge.  Fitting for its nonlinear nature, you slowly gain a sense of time as cyclical.  The same problems return again and again, and humanity continues to focus more on their own personal drama while disaster looms over the horizon.  It would be easy for the game to fall into cynicism with its teenage love triangles and revenge plots, yet ultimately it still finds a hopeful ending.  While there are parts of the game that fall flat for sure, I’ll leave other reviews to cover those.  This probably won’t be a game for everyone, but the fact something as ambitious as this even exists is enough for me to get caught up in its infectious excitement.

– Amanda

Duel Links’ Nostalgic & Improved Platform

As a child, I was obsessed with the trading card game called Yu-Gi-Oh. I would often spend my recess periods dueling my classmates and trading for coveted cards. Much time has passed since my days in elementary school and I had forgotten about this game. A friend, however, recently introduced a mobile game reiteration of Yu-Gi-Oh known as Duel Links to me. Within a few hours of play, I was immediately captivated again by this franchise.

The premise of Duel Links is simple. You start with one of the two main characters from the original TV series — Yugi Moto or Seto Kaiba; and your goal is to rise to the top of Duel Links tournament where the best duelists compete against one another. You have a starting deck based on your character’s deck from the original series and you battle other duelists to gain experience points in order to level up your character, which unlocks skills and new cards for your deck. Aside from your character’s level, there are stages of the game which can be progressed by competing various challenges such as ‘Win 10 duels’ or ‘Use 5 spell cards.’ Completing stages unlocks additional characters from the TV show who can be battled against or played as.

Choice of Starter Characters (Gameplay Screenshot)

Duel Links emulates the fun atmosphere of this trading card game. There are flashy animations when a player pulls a rare card or summons a signature card. These effects reminded me of the excitement of buying numerous packs in order to obtain the cover card and finally using it against my friends. Another strength of Duel Links is its setting. The TV series was an event I looked forward to every Saturday morning and to summon Blue-Eyes White Dragon as Kaiba brings a warm sense of nostalgia.

Blue-Eyes White Dragon Animation (Gameplay Screenshot)

Duel Links also improves upon the weaknesses of the trading card game. Modern Yu-Gi-Oh has become a tedious game due to dense card text and long play time. Duel Links, on the other hand, has a much faster pace. The field has three monster and spell/trap zones instead of five. In addition, the general deck size is reduced from 40 cards to 20. My favorite aspect of Duel Links is the immediate access to PVP matches. It is difficult to find someone to play Yu-Gi-Oh in a real world setting, so having the ability to play anyone at anytime is an awesome feature.

Duel Links Field Format (Gameplay Screenshot)

Duel Links is a nostalgic reintroduction to Yu-Gi-Oh. Players can use their favorite character’s deck and experience the excitement of obtaining and summoning ace monsters. This mobile game also provides a quick format for players to duel each at any time. Duel Links is a game that should be recommended to all former and current Yu-Gi-Oh players to enjoy the fruits of their childhood again.

-MLB

Death, Taxes, and Video Games

For being one of the few things guaranteed at birth, death is a fickle thing. I am not promised how I’ll die, when I’ll die, or where I’ll die, but death is promised nonetheless. Maybe I can chalk up death’s inevitability to life being unfair, or it could be the only thing that’s fair when the credits roll on my game of life. But no matter how much I prepare for this inescapable ending, death is often unexpected. 

It took me a whole year to realize Pokemon evolution was a thing…

This (among other things) is where reality and video games differ. Yes, death is assured in video games, but it is expected at some point in my journey. Whether that is my Chewbacca crumbling into a pile of Lego limbs after losing four hearts or my Charmander fainting in battle against yet another wild Pokemon, death is a part of the contract you sign as soon as you boot up your system.

For being one of the few things guaranteed at birth, death is an unfamiliar thing… until it’s not. I knew what death was from an early age because of how innately straightforward it is; it’s the state of not living, of not being, anymore. That is obviously an oversimplification of an incredibly complex idea. But, we aren’t born with the mental capacity to understand its intricacies, and until we do, we are forced to live with this elementary concept of death. 

This is where reality and video games are similar. My mortality has and always will be easier to understand than others’. My life is finite and full of “Game Over” screens. I made tentative peace with that a while ago, whether that came in the form of turning to religion or throwing a few controllers across the room. Still, despite my internal preparation, I couldn’t wrap my head around a friend or loved one passing away.

Video games taught me to expect death, but Mass Effect broke those seemingly sacred rules. For the uninitiated, Mass Effect is the ultimate mix of a third-person, sci-fi shooter and a soap opera. In between your firefights with invading alien hordes and saving the universe from genocidal annihilation, you spend your most meaningful time convincing NPCs to join your crew aboard your equivalent of the Millenium Falcon. Over the span of three games and 200 hours, these crewmembers feel more like friends as opposed to a few megabytes in the game’s bedrock of code.

Nose goes on filling up the tank!

My favorite crewmember was Legion, an enemy robot, or Geth, that inexplicably joins your quest. Legion is a conglomerate of every Geth personality and, therefore, struggles with the concept of free will, referring to itself as “we.” Despite its steely exterior, Legion has a lovable personality, a hilariously dry sense of humor, and is always eager to help his commander. 

Throughout the trilogy, I died countless times while Legion charged through levels like a bulletproof battering ram. I was conditioned to believe Legion was invincible in the face of my own helpless mortality.

Great soldier, terrible cuddler.

Towards the end of the third game, Legion and the Geth have a chance to be freed from the chains of their code… with one catch: Legion must sacrifice itself for its race to achieve true free will. His final words before shutting down one last time are “I’m sorry. I must go.” After three games of referring to himself as “we,” Legion finally recognizes his individuality. Through tears, I reloaded the level and tried again and again and again to save Legion to no avail. Death is inevitable, no matter how many times I tried to help my friend escape it. 

My great grandma passed away later that year, and I thought I was ready. I thought I knew what death was. I tried reminding myself of my oversimplification, and that made me sick. I told myself that “she was in a better place,” but I knew I was lying to myself. I wanted to hug her once last time, or eat her homemade pie, or just hear her soft voice again. But, all I could do was cry. You can do everything right, but sometimes that’s still not enough. No matter how prepared for or familiar you are with death, the inevitable is labeled so for a reason. The most important lesson I’ve learned from gaming and life is that, after the necessary tears and mourning, I have a mission to pursue every day, whether that is saving the virtual universe or just spending time with my friends and family I am fortunate enough to still have with me today.

Seveneves: The Role-Playing Game!

 

[featured image taken from https://www.nealstephenson.com/news/2015/05/26/seveneves-site/%5D

When you were a kid, did you ever play those games where you would look up to the sky and imagine the clouds as bunnies, dragons, or anything in between? Did you ever play the ever-popular “the floor is lava” game? If so, fantastic, because as a kid you’re sort of expected to have an active imagination. But why does this expectation fade over time? What about “growing up” means that you have to lose your creativity? Well, we believe there is absolutely no reason for that imagination to wane, and in this blog post we’d like to suggest a fun way to keep your inner kid alive and well.

It’s called a role-playing game (RPG for short), and you may have heard about more popular ones, like Dungeons & Dragons, as there has been a resurgence of interest following the use of this particular RPG in popular culture (think Stranger Things). We made an RPG that was a combination of Dungeons & Dragons, Stars Without Number (a sci-fi RPG), and Seveneves (a science fiction book by Neal Stephenson). Ours may not be the best RPG out there, but if anything we hope this blog post shows you how, without enough time and thinking, anybody can have a great time making and playing an RPG.

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The idea of the RPG is one that has been solely rooted in the fantasy genre, and by association, the wider genre of romance, something that we have discussed at length in this class. The RPG brings together a group of people, often with varying skills and interests that offset each other, with a shared goal. There is usually some form of quest, self-redemption, or self-revelation that occurs, and because RPGs are more focused on player character development than most other forms of interactive media that we discussed, we thought it best to use to remediate a science fiction novel. Additionally, we both have years of experience playing role-playing games such as D&D and Pathfinder, and have planned our own campaigns before as well as played personal characters in others. All of those campaigns were solely in the fantasy genre, however, so if we were going to make a science fiction RPG, we would have to do a little research.

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The first order of business was understanding the book in which we were basing our RPG. Internet synopses can tell you more than we can here, but this is the gist: the moon was destroyed by an unknown “Agent,” and in the two years before the moon rocks crash to Earth and destroy everything, humanity stashes itself in space to return thousands of years later as collection of seven races, stemming from the seven fertile women who survived in space. You can see more contextual information later in the post and in our notes, or if you’re really invested you can even read the book. The point is this book was perfect for creating a sci-fi RPG.

Furthermore, we scoured the Internet for tips and resources on how to make a sci-fi RPG. From Googling those exact words to thumbing through Reddit threads, we took a few days to amass as many ideas as possible. We settled on the system Stars Without Number, as this RPG system was freely available and seemed to be quite well developed for our purposes. Specifically, this system did a great job at reframing D&D classes into various jobs and skills that were more suitable for life in space, rather than a fantasy world, and the system itself was flexible enough to modify.

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Why would we need to modify the system? Well, our goal for this project was to develop a “one-shot” game, or an RPG that is meant to be played in a single session rather than in a multiple-session campaign. With this in mind, our primary concern was providing the players enough time to explore the world we were creating. We easily adjusted the mechanics for making skill checks to be less based on players stats and more based on intent and narration. In more practical terms, players could essentially do whatever they wished without all the role-playing and messing about that takes time, so the Game Master (GM) could provide more narration about the environment. It worked out pretty well, as you can see in the videos we’ve placed here and throughout the post.

There are many other mechanical considerations you have to make when planning an RPG. Where is the game set? What is the history of this setting? What is society like? What maps do you need to make? Who might the players encounter, and what will that encounter look like? Is there a point system? Since we based our game on the world of Seveneves, we had a lot of the contextual questions taken care of already. We answered the RPG-specific questions, and you can see our notes in the Google document link in this post later on. The doc can speak for itself, but we’d like to briefly elaborate on the point system, which we developed from the ground up. Normally “points” in the RPG world are experience points that accumulate to level up the player. However, we used “assets” as a way of measuring how well the players were forming bonds with the species on Old Earth, and so whichever team (Red or Blue) had the most assets by identifying and succeeding in more opportunities by the end of the session won.

We gathered up some of our friends to play a short one-shot on a Monday. In RPG terms, a “one-shot” is usually a game or storyline that takes one or two sessions to finish (as opposed to usual longer story arcs in regular play). We planned on filming the session to use in our presentation, so we wanted to have every possible race represented. Our friend Penn played an Ivyn engineer, Jacob played a Camite priest, Nick played a Julian aspiring politician, Jamz played a Moiran biologist, Ethan played a Teklan transport specialist, Jordan played a Dinan astronavigator, or “astrogator,” and Matthew played an Aïdan technician. Torie acted as the “GM,” or the Game Master, who essentially narrates the campaign and prompts the players to make various “checks” in order to see if they successfully complete the actions they wish to perform.

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The plot itself was simple: each of the player characters had been gathered as part of a co-racial mission from an orbiting space station around the Earth to explore a newly terraformed surface and investigate for human life. You can read more about it here. You can also see the racial traits and backgrounds we provided for our player characters to choose from. In our game, which lasted about three hours (typical for a standard RPG session, at least for us), our group encountered a race of humans that had adapted to living underwater for over 5,000 years that the orbiting population nicknamed the “Pingers,” after the sonar-esque transmissions they intercepted from their society. While at first a little hostile, our group managed to curtail the growing violence and managed to establish good terms with a group of Pingers. (Here is a video of their “first contact”). They shared technological knowledge and made some vague promises at treaties with military leaders, and were pointed to the underground race of humans (“Diggers”) to assist them in repairing their broken communications device.  

As a player character, or PC, I found the sci-fi context fascinating. Personally, I’ve always loved engaging with any media from this genre; though everything is scientific and futuristic, it’s still all imagined and possible, so it makes me feel optimistically youthful. For this game, we had a mix of rambunctious and withdrawn players, so that made the three hours we played pass with much entertainment. I was in the unusual position of being a quasi-GM, meaning that I was privy to everything that might happen in the game, but I still had to engage as a player who did not know these things. Thus, I found myself motivating the players to pursue various paths that I knew would keep the action in the game flowing. I wish we had had more time to thoroughly explore the world that we had created, but that’s just the nature of a one-shot game.

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As a GM, Torie found that there was a lot of the story that she did not prepare for. Unfortunately, only one member of the group besides us had actually read Seveneves ( a couple of them did read it after the session, though!), and this proved to be a bit of a problem when Torie ended up killing a lot of game time explaining background situations and mechanics of the players’ society and objects to them. Both of us (Torie and Matthew) have been Game Masters for our own games before, and while Torie had over twenty pages of GM notes, we both knew that planning a successful campaign and story took a much longer amount of time than a single month. Even with the most careful planning, though, the fun of RPGs is that the players make their own decisions, which means that there is always something happening that the GM has zero plans for. Torie expected this, and because of it, was able to work mostly successfully with the players’ wishes as they went. We were hoping to have contact with both the Diggers and the Pingers in this, but, after three hours, the group had only made it to the Pingers, and we decided to call it a night. (This is common with our experience as GMs and players, stories always take a little longer to tell/roleplay than you think they will). 

In conclusion, we loved the opportunity to take something we both love to do as a hobby and integrating it with the themes that we have learned in ENGL 3726 with Professor Clayton at Vanderbilt. We have both grown up with these “new” forms of media that we have discussed in class, and have been fans of the fantasy and sci-fi genres since childhood. Being able to put those together in this new creation was a really satisfying culmination of these themes for us, and we know that our friends enjoyed playing through the story with us as well.

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Things to Ignore When Reading Ready Player One

Writing a book is hard. Trust me, writing a blog and maybe a poem every other week is enough for me. So I give a thumbs up to Ernest Cline, the author of Ready Player One, and everyone else who decides to make art. So in this post, I’ll give RPO a thumps up with one hand and use the other to write (yes, this was all on paper originally) my critique.

The pervading problem with this book is that it is way too extra for me to enjoy, allowing for both contradictions and superficiality that lessen the immersion and importance of its subject matter. The paragraphs will focus on poverty, A.I., Wade’s skills, Wade’s love interest, a list of other ways the book was extra, a passionate discussion of Aech, a complaint on how the’80s theme was handled, and a conclusion. So While I encourage you to read all of it, becauuse it all points a thesis that I hope you’ll agree with, if not also feel in your bones, at least there’s a guide if you just want to pick and choose from my buffet of complaints.

One of the first contradictions that this book makes is between the overwhelming poverty in its dystopian setting and the isolation Wade feels for being poor in the OASIS. This book doesn’t really hold back on describing the world as being impoverished: energy crisis, mass migration, stacks, etc. So on one hand there is a world of poverty, which is fine on its own. On the other hand, there is a social elite, complete with virtual space ships, teleporters, planets, expensive virtual clothes, etc. So lots of stories explore this dichotomy, but they are consistent in a way that RPO is not. In this story, Wade seems to be the only poor person in school, and this is a major factor to his character and narrative. Every time Wade mentions the poverty or the rich people in his school, I found myself asking: where are all the poor students? Wade barely had decent grades, and halliday made sure that the OASIS public school system would receive funding forever, so why was Wade given a headset and no one else who was poor? This is a relatively unimportant contradiction, but it was the first I saw and it was repeated often, so I thought I’d start here and give harsher criticism later.

Another way that being too extra makes a thematic contradiction in this story is when Wade plays against the A.I. guarding the first key. On one page, he says that A.I. could never be like humans because the software can’t “improvise,” (82). In the story’s logic A.I. could never beat humans because they cannot do what humans do, so thus they are definitely not human. This would have been fine, but then the book goes further by having Wade also think that he “was actually playing against Halliday,” (83). He could have thought that he was playing against Halliday’s creation or something, but instead he breaks his own internal logic by saying both that A.I. can never be like humans and that the A.I. is Halliday. This is a simple contradiction that could have been easily avoided if the book wasn’t trying to be so extra.

Speaking of being too extra, let’s talk about how much praise the book gives Wade for his video game skills and 80’s knowledge. Wade, after not playing a game for 2 years, beats the A.I. on his first try. Then he goes on to beat every other challenge without breaking a sweat. This means that our hero never fails, never has to reflect on the fact that he isn’t a perfect gunter, because he is. This really takes out the tension of each challenge and makes the story less interesting, since we don’t know how Wade reacts to not being perfect, which is something that everyone deals with. Not only this, but it is also unrealistic for him to be so good. UNREALISTIC!? But it’s just a book, who cares. The author, for one, seems to. He also seems to think that we will, since he goes into a lot of effort to show how much time Wade puts in to playing games to justify his perfection. In bragging to us about how much Wade knows, Wade concludes by telling us that he studies “Twelve hours a day, seven days a week” (64). If we factor in 40 hours for school and only 7 hours of homework a week, that means that he only sleeps for 37 hours throughout the week, which is just 5.3 hours per week every day during the school year. I’m no doctor, but I’d imagine that if someone only got that much sleep for the school year for 5 years, he’d be dead, or at least unable to function even in the virtual world. His knowledge, talent, and obsession is just too extra to be realistic or entertaining narrative-wise.

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This shit is serious. I’d like to see Wade halllucinate, or at least yawn.

Wanna talk about the character of Wade being extra? Let’s talk about how far the author goes to show how genuine and accepting he is. When describing how his crush is pretty much the only person in OASIS to have a female avatar to not have “the absurdly thin yet wildly popular supermodel frame, or the top-heavy, wasp-waisted porn starlet physique” we get the impression that his crush is genuine because he likes her for who she really is (35). First, the stereotype of almost everyone changing their body in such stereotypical ways is too much to even be called cliche; second, the fact that she is one of the few who break it is such a “she’s not like other girls” trope used to – third – show why Wade isn’t like other guys, because he likes the genuine girl. Also, he has a crush on her. No, not a crush, more like an unhealthy obsession, going so far as to keep a picture of her to look at. Next, lets look at her narrative: she gets helped (read: saved) by the protagonist for parts of the egg hunt, opens up about her personal life to someone she really doesn’t know and thus of course falls in love with him, breaks up with him to work on her own, then realizes what a great guy he is after the final battle and gets back together with him. Her journey revolves around realizing how genuine the main character is. Blegh.

I could talk about a LOT more: Halliday’s inconsistent, unimportant platitude to live in the real world, Wade’s lack of reaction about the deaths he caused by refusing Sorrento (wow look how alpha and determined he is!), their portrayal of internet culture with I-Rok and how the WORST aspects of the internet were staged in front of a cheering crowd without any deeper reflection (for heaven’s sake, they call him a retard and two derogatory terms for gay people without a blink of an eye), the constant insistence that just because Wade knows a lot about 80’s culture means that he somehow deserves to win the prize attached to the contest (does anyone remember how he wanted to spend it all on escaping Earth?), Halliday’s creepy and unrealistic, and seemingly justified obsession with someone who doesn’t like him, the total lack of anything but superficial character growth, predictable ending, the constant use of deus ex machina explained after-the-fact (oh he bought a tool to hack IOI’s network! and Pacman gave him the extra life!), the undeserved and superficial reference that turns out to be totally irrelevant of ““No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful,” (199), the constant spelling-out of references, and the amount of times that the book gives us the same exact piece of exposition over and over again (how many times have I read that about Halliday’s backstory?). Sure, this is all extra, but there are two more topics that I want to talk about in more depth.

The first is the reveal of Aech. I’ll start with the artistic decision to make her a checkmark for every victimized identity he could think of: female, black, lesbian, and heavy. This would be amazing if Aech’s character was actually influenced by her identity. Instead, we get a short backstory that seems to only explain why she has a van and why she doesn’t live with her parents. Before and after this, Aech’s identity DOES NOT MATTER. It impacts nothing, and we learn nothing more. Is Wade interested in how she feels about not representing her race/gender and thus not providing a good model of those minorities? Surely she has some opinion on that. What about how weird it is that she feels discrimination in the real world and not in OASIS? Or how her family feels about this? Or about how her behavior is sort of encouraging her to be ashamed about her identity? What about how she feels when people talk poorly about any of her identities in the game (what about when Wade calls I-Rok a twink or when I-Rok calls them fags?). There is a wealth of characterization here, and we don’t get more than two paragraphs about it before we return to how Wade feels about all of this.

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When Southpark gives their tokens a stronger racial identity than Ready Player One

All of this, all of her identity checks, backstory, possibility for characterization, is all just there to show that Wade is a good person and that he will still be friends with Aech despite this. F*ck that bs. I already disliked this book a lot, but this made me throw the book against the floor. Marginalized identities to a side character should not be used to make the main character look more accepting. They should not be used as just a plot twist. And they do not deserved to be ignored, as Wade so easily does by continuing to refer to Aech as a “he.” Does he ask her which pronoun to use? He couldn’t care less. How Wade wants to refer to Aech is all that matters, her identity is nothing more than Wade’s interpretation of it (much like how Cartman is treating Token in the picture above). But so, while for a brief moment there could be an interesting character in this book, is then taken away because the author really doesn’t want to explore the issue beyond how it can make the protagonist look tolerant. In short, the book is so extra in making Wade look genuine that it makes one of its characters fit every marginalized identity and explores it with as much brevity as possible to keep the focus on how Wade is so great for accepting Aech. This alone is pathetic enough to make me hate the book.

One more thing. The book is filled beyond the brim to ’80s references. The narrative is constantly interrupted with explanations about references, and many more are name dropped in there. This would be fine if there was more, but that’s it. There is no theme to connect everything. It’s just there, and it could easily be replaced with anything else and not change anything. The ’80s references are just there as wallpaper, having no significance beyond letting the reader feel good about remembering some references. What is significant about the ’80s that Halliday became obsessed with it? Why does it pervade everywhere? No reason, just that he was a kid there.

It’s more of a trivia challenge than something interesting. The author could have expanded upon how the escapism of that culture matches that of the OASIS, or it’s origin in the powerful economy of the ’80s and how that relates to their society, or something. Instead all we get is a list of things that people remember from the ’80s. And I didn’t care. Nothing about it was interesting.

In conclusion, this book isn’t so much suffering from a few flaws as much as it is filled to the brim with problems. That is why I can’t just find it fun. However, I don’t mean to offend anyone who did enjoy the book, since reading is a subjective and personal experience. I’m just suggesting that if you want to swim in this book’s water, don’t dive headfirst; brain injury may occur in shallow waters.

 

Hint about my username: Art isn’t easy. ___ is a major decision.

-EveryMinorDetail

Escaping to the OASIS

When you think of an oasis the first thing that comes to mind is probably something similar to the definition of the word given by merriam-webster.

It conjures an image of a place that is safe from what is surrounding it where unpleasant things like the heat of the desert can’t reach you. In the book Ready Player One however it is an Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation which is a virtual reality device used to connect the player to the other players and many worlds that they can explore. The characters use this as a real oasis where they can pretend that the atrocities of the outside world can’t reach them and they can escape into a fantasy setting or a version of the world before they ran out of fuel. This escapism is a major point throughout the book because the world they live in is full of poverty and they have become reliant on a second virtual world for their economy, education, and entertainment. Besides sleep, food, and bodily functions everything can be done inside the oasis and they never have to interact with many of the unpleasantries of their real world. With technology like the hamster ball rooms and haptic feedback suits and chairs the characters can become fully immersed and even be able to touch and feel objects in whatever world they want to make their own personal escape to. However, they can’t escape from the real world forever since their makeshift fuel solutions will only hold up for so long without anyone trying to fix them. Though the oasis can help them escape from the world, it can’t help them fix it and eventually they will have to step out from their safe haven to mend the world they actually live in.

The Virtual School, the Better Choice?

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Dr. James L. Moore

 

 

As an education major at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, I have a particular interest in different ways students can learn. When my class read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, there were parts of the novel that denoted different ways in which the main character, Wade Watts (avatar Parzival online) learned and studied in a virtual world called the OASIS. What was most interesting is this apparent dichotomy between learning in a physical versus learning in a virtual setting. It appears that the OASIS, as you will soon come to learn in the opening chapter, emphasizes virtual components as the main vehicle of getting really almost anything done. Along with currency and communication being almost completely virtual, the schools seem to be as well. Taking a look at a quote in the beginning of the book,

” I was more or less raised by the OASIS’s interactive educational programs, which any kid could access for free. I spent a big chunk of my childhood hanging out in a virtual-reality simulation of Sesame Street, singing songs with friendly Muppets and playing interactive games that taught me how to walk, talk, add, subtract, read, write, and share,” (Cline 15).”

This quote points out the power of Virtual reality in promoting the healthy social/emotional development of students a an early age. An award winning and in my opinion one of the best, highest quality children’s programs of all time, Jim Henson’s Muppets- Sesame Street- Cline discusses through the main character how certain elementary concepts and lessons on social skills could be learned at a more interactive, much more tailored pace through this use of virtual education. Let’s take a look at a video that relates to this (Video #65 on the list:

After watching this, you may recall Dr. James L Moore III remarking that, “We need schools that are student centered and always factor in the human element.” This is juxtaposed with this idea of virtual learning that is the way of learning and understanding in the OASIS. What is better? Virtual learning to give an extremely tailored learning experiences to almost all students, or more expensive individualized learning, with a physical presence of a teacher?

Harassment in VR Spaces

(Spoiler warning for Ready Player One by Ernest Cline in first two paragraphs. Links contain sensitive content relating to sexual harassment in online/gaming communities.)

Ready Player One: 80’s nostalgia trip, celebration of gamer culture, cyberpunk dystopia, hero’s quest, and – teenage love story? I’ll admit, I haven’t finished the book yet, but from the beginning our protagonist Will Wade/Parzival is smitten with Art3mis, a fellow gunter and popular online personality. He even has pictures of her (or at least, her avatar) saved on his hard drive. When he first encounters Art3mis in the Tomb of Horrors, he gives her advice on how to beat the lich king. Once they’re both High Five celebrities on the famed scoreboard, they begin a casual romance. Art3mis breaks it off when she feels their time together has become too much of a distraction from the hunt. Parzival, lovesick, sends her unread messages, flowers, and stands outside of her virtual castle with a boombox: part persistent “good guy,” part slightly creepy stalker.

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One has not (yet) examined gender politics on the OASIS, but it acknowledged the age-old mantra: “There are no girls on the Internet.” Even in a world where virtually the entire population uses OASIS and a game event with a massive prize, the default is presumed male. Parzival persistently questions Art3mis’s gender until he is assured that she’s “actually” female, accusations that Art3mis takes with good humor.

(Spoilers end here.)

But as we all know, there are women on the internet and in the gaming world, and they have been there since the beginning – even when the climate is hostile. Shortly after starting Ready Player One I found this article about the writer Jordan Belamire’s experience with sexual harassment in virtual reality. Despite all players having identical avatars, another player recognized her voice as female and followed her around attempting to touch her avatar inappropriately. She finally exited the game. The game’s developers were shocked and dismayed when they heard of the incident and in response developed an in-game “power gesture” that creates a privacy bubble around the player. They hope that other virtual reality developers will take harassment into consideration when designing their games. Online or in-game harassment is nothing new, but as we pioneer exciting new platforms and experiences, it continues to be a thorn in the community’s side.

Ready Player One might take place in the distant dystopian future, but in characters’ interactions with each other the culture seems closest to the Wild West of the 2000s internet – complete with flame wars and skepticism on women’s presence in the OASIS. Presumably, harassment continues to be an issue in this brave new world of the OASIS – but is the response closer to QuiVr’s developer-implemented “power gesture,” or the old advice of “just ignore it and it will go away?” Perhaps it isn’t even a talking point in the OASIS’s community – why worry about it when, after all, there are no girls on the internet?

What do you think of QuiVr developers’ response in implementing the power gesture? Do you think that this is a valid solution, or do you believe it is too much/too little?  What responses to harassment have you seen on other platforms and games?

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

 

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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

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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