Make (AAA) Video Games Great Again

Being a business-minded person (ironically majoring in English), it hurts to me to see the state of AAA titles, or titles that have major (designer) studios and massive budgets behind them. I’m not going to try to make this a nostalgic, grass is greener type of post, but there has been an undeniable decay in quality titles. I attribute this to a variety of factors, the foremost being the push of financial interests overwhelming any sense of artistry for designers and storytellers. Many famous studios since the seventh generation of consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) have become “sell-outs” pumping out sequel, after sequel each year, releasing incomplete, glitchy games and selling them for $60 a pop. Why, you might ask, do they have the audacity to release half-baked titles? Because the seventh generation of consoles introduced the ability to PATCH games. Patching means they essentially offer online updates that you download straight to your console. In its best use, it fixes gamebreaking bugs that play testers missed, at worst it allows developers to meet their deadlines on products and just update it later.

From a studio standpoint, tension has grown between “hey, we’ve got this $100 million dollar game brand that’s super valuable, lets leverage that and sell it again, slightly different, for the full price!” and “hey, lets create something new and original, and see where it goes!” The operative term for this phenomena is risk.

Risk has always been an important facet of success in game development, people conceptualize all kinds of unique, wacky ideas, and generally if their team was behind them, they would get to work. Now, most big conglomerate video game companies have acquired these studios and have essentially told them to take far less risk, and to design titles that encourage the customers to spend even more cash on downloadable content. My favorite example of taking a unique idea and injecting old fashioned corporate greed is Evolve. Evolve took a unique concept, one player plays as a massive powerful monster trying to evolve (lol) and destroy the planet or kill the hunters. 4 other players pick hunters, categorized by roles, in order to combat the titanic beasts. Sounds interesting right? Check out this cool screenshot:Image result for evolve

It’s a AAA title that had a lot of unique promise to it. But then, on day 1 (yes, ONE, UNO, EINS) of its release, it launched with approximately $136 in buyable, downloadable content for players in the form of new characters and monsters…

Developers all started out in the same place, getting into game development either out of the interest in the challenge, or true love of creating stories and entertaining the masses. As soon as the sixth generation of consoles, that is, the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube era, each platform had incredible AAA products come out, these games were complete because they had to be, you couldn’t issue software updates to any game-breaking glitches. Releases had multi-year gaps between them, meaningful space to respect their current offerings, and to properly develop their newest titles. Now, we have this:COD.jpg

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You really gotta ask yourself: what’s going on?

-Tom

Robert Browning and Tolkien- Dark and Mysterious

robert_browning_sml   In looking at this past week, a large focus was on comparing the video game realm Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) to texts such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings- Part 1- Fellowship of the Ring a poem by Robert Browning.

Our class focused on Robert Browning’s Poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” This poem has a particularly dark, almost agrarian style attached to it, referring to many icons that are thought of to be “medieval” of sorts. Specifically, Browning discusses icons such as castles, treasures and the mention of the name Giles- which may be an allusion to Giles Corey- a name that I will get to later in this discussion. Synonymously- in John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, there is discussion of towers and a treasure of some sort with regards to the actual ring.

Looking at stanza three in  Browning’s poem, it reads,

“If at his counsel I should turn aside                                                                                                   Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower.”

This seems to be describing Roland could not find anyone reliable to count on- and to find someone worthy to be with is as difficult as finding one’s way through a dark tower at night. It seems to point out the struggles that of finding one’s way.

In comparison, looking at Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, he writes,

“The Dark Tower had been rebuilt, it was said. From there the power was spreading far and wide, and away far east and south there were wars and growing fear. Orcs were multiplying again in the mountains.”

What is entailed here lies the discussion of trying to navigate one’s way through the land combined with the unknown brought about from war and unrest- not to mention the mountains that Tolkien describes- creating another barrier, element of mystique.

Looking at stanza 17, Browning writes,

“Giles then, the soul of honour – there he stands
Frank as ten years ago when knighted first,
What honest man should dare (he said) he durst.”

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Here lies an allusion of the man Giles Corey. Giles Corey was accused of witchcraft in Salem, MA and was pressed to death by stones. Another dark connotation and entails a discussion of morality and telling the truth, and the consequences that result from not doing so in the eyes of one’s peers.

 

source: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Giles Corey of Salem Farms,” in . Houghton Mifflin Boston, 1902. Artist John W. Ehninger, 1880, p. 752.

Ever, Jane: Mansfield Park and MMORPGs

Every MMORPG I’ve ever played has had murder as a basic and essential game mechanic. Need to complete a quest, advance a level, acquire an item? Better go kill a dozen wolves/bandits/pirates/mages so that you can get enough exp/gold to… buy more powerful weapons and kill stronger wolves/bandits/et cetera. Even in Lord of the Rings Online’s Shire area has kill quests – there are hobbit-suited quests like delivering mail and avoiding nosy neighbors, but there are also assignments to kill bears and slay wolves, even if the books themselves say it’s been generations since wolves appeared in the Shire. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy this style of gameplay, but it’s become so ingrained into the MMO experience thatI I’ve come to assume it’s essential.

Enter Ever, Jane, an online roleplaying game currently in open Beta that is based on the novels of Jane Austen.

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The village of Tyrehampton. Screenshot from Ever, Jane.

Yes, Jane Austen. Set in Austen’s vision of early 19th-century Regency England, Ever, Jane allows players to create a character who – instead of climbing levels and increasing their strength, defense, HP, and other familiar stats – will develop traits called Status, Happiness, Kindness, Duty, and Reputation. Instead of kill quests, players may embark on ‘stories’ with or without the help of other players. As the game’s website says, “It’s not about kill or be killed but invite or be invited. Gossip is our weapon of choice. Instead of raids, we will have grand balls. Instead of dungeons, we will have dinner parties.”

 

Unlike Lord of the Rings Online, where roleplaying is only encouraged and required on specific servers, roleplaying appears to be the heart of Ever, Jane: players are encouraged to stay in-character at all times, build storylines with other players, and adhere to role-playing etiquette. However, the game’s stories and character traits introduce more traditional elements of gameplay that players of other MMORPGs might expect. Balls and dinner parties act like special events (or exclusive dungeons) where a player must meet certain requirements to enter; mini-games will simulate era-appropriate pastimes which help increase stats. Instead of slaying your enemy in PvP, you can ruin their reputation with gossip.

I was impressed with the creators’ passion to translate the experience of Jane Austen novels into a gaming experience — especially an MMO. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for instance, lends itself easily to action and adventure. To adapt Austen’s works the creators needed to challenge the basic notions of what an MMORPG is and cut away the stereotypes of the medium to get to the heart: community.

An online game based around Jane Austen novels might sound like a niche product, but it’s a niche with an enthusiastic fan base: during the game’s Kickstarter campaign, 1,600 backers pledged $109,563. As the game passes through its Open Beta and into full launch, it will be interesting to see which classical MMORPG elements will be integrated and altered to suit the game’s goals and which won’t be invited to the dinner party.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: Is it really an allegory?

To be honest, the first time I read The Lord of the Rings, I didn’t think that it could be allegorical of anything at all. It was a highly fictional world with Elves and Dwarves and Magical Rings that are just too imaginative to be part of the real world. To me, Lord of the Rings was nothing more than the product of Tolkien’s fantastic imagination and dedication towards creating such a detailed world. All I saw was a writers’ great enthusiasm towards the concept of this imaginary world in which all the creatures from the fairy tales we all have read live together.

To be fair, I was 15 at the time so I’m not surprised to see how my recent readings of this series has completely changed its meaning – not going to lie, I enjoyed my first reading far more than my recent ones, just because I was able to immerse myself into this fantastical world and almost become a part of the story. In recent readings, however, I have been much more aware of what is actually happening in the story and have often connected aspects of it to the real world. By doing so, I did cut out on some of the fun of reading it, but my recent readings of the series have been far more memorable, just because they now feel a little more realistic.

In the foreword, Tolkien bluntly states that “The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.” In short, THIS BOOK IS NOT ALLEGORICAL OF ANYTHING – And my first reading of this book is representative of exactly this. As the story progressed, I went along with Frodo and Sam on their quest and felt the same things as they would have felt – the book most definitely held the attention of its readers. What really strengthens this idea that Lord of the Rings is purely fictional is that Tolkien just didn’t stop at this book, but wrote almost 12 more books on the history and lore of Middle Earth. He was just trying his best to make a complete fictional world.

However, at this point it’s just difficult for me to think that this book (and all the books preceding or following it) does not pull from the events around Tolkien in his time. The overlaying themes of good versus evil is something that was (and is) highly prominent at the time given that this book was written shortly after the first World War and was followed by the second World War. The number of parallels that can be drawn between the book and the state of the world at that time make it very difficult to agree with the fact that this book was written as pure fiction. Sure, the book is not a direct allegory of real events such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which it is clear that each character represents a person in the real world, but it is most definitely not pure fiction.

Looking at the allegorical aspects of Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s comments about how the book was not intended to be allegorical of the war, one question that came to my mind was that can anything be pure fiction? Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings during a time of great social and political turmoil and it is hard to think that those ideas were not part of his subconscious while writing the book. It is extremely difficult not to include aspects of the real world in writing and almost impossible to not be influenced by what is going on around you. In my public speaking course, we have been talking about informative speeches and how it is necessary to be unbiased in such speeches. During our discussions, I realized that it is really difficult not to include any of your own opinions to be part of your speech in one way or another. In the same way, I’m certain that Tolkien definitely had some opinions on the state of the world at that time, and at some point some of these ideas were bound to bleed into his writing. Perhaps, this is why he states that the book was not intended to be an allegory, but the ideas presented in the book are highly applicable to the real world and this is just a result of some of his own opinions being reflected in his writing. Taking a look at another ‘fictional’ series, Harry Potter once again deals with highly imaginative topics such as wizards and fantastic beasts. However, it is quite often debated that this series too has some allegorical aspects with respect to religion. Similarly, in The Lord of the Rings, themes that are shared with christianity are seen throughout the book, and I think it’s very possible that his interactions with C.S. Lewis could have been a contributing factor to that. After all, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is full of references to the Bible.

In the end, I agree with Tolkien on the statement that The Lord of the Rings was not written as an Allegory to the second World War, Christianity, or any of the many other ideas and themes that this book parallels. It was written as an attempt to entertain and excite readers and it does exactly that. However it is nearly impossible to write any work without being influenced by the culture and society around you and The Lord of the Rings is a result of the events happening around the time it was written, blending into it. However, this actually doesn’t take away from the book but in fact, adds to it. By adding aspects to it that are representative of the real world, readers are able to connect with the book at a deeper level as they are familiar with the concepts being dealt with. It allows the readers to relate to the events taking place in the book and in some ways enhances their experience as the delve deeper into the world that the author has created for them.

Campbell’s Universal Mythology

Among the five most important books I’ve ever read was The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell. It was assigned to the other section in my high school English class, but my teacher offered me a copy, somehow sensing that I would love it. This book—in fact it is the transcription of a series of interviews Campbell participated in near the end of his life—was my first real glimpse into the all-important notion of the hero’s journey.

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Seriously, you’ve gotta read this book.

Campbell’s main thesis is that all mythologies reflect the same basic storyline, one that is derived from our common evolution and biological life process. This monomyth features familiar tropes such as the call to adventure, the road of trials, the goal, and the return to the ordinary world. At its core, the hero’s journey describes a chosen individual who must face and overcome difficulty, growing in the process. In Campbell’s own words:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Many would argue that the quintessential hero’s journey is of course Homer’s Odyssey. Its derivative works, from Keeley’s Ithaka to Tennyson’s Ulysses, have become classics in their own right. The most important aspect of the common storyline, however, is in realizing that it is a metaphor for the human experience of growth. Campbell speaks of the life stages of childhood, adulthood, and old age that we all experience. Desire, weakness, bravery and triumph are tropes of our literature (both sacred and profane) because they exist within ourselves.

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the study of the humanities is that the more you learn, the more your classes seem to overlap, telling the same tale in various ways. This Renaissance value of the enlightened person bettering both themselves and others through broad learning is a tradition you and I are carrying on with our decision to major in or study English in any capacity. While the world no longer operates under the notion that there is one universal morality, the utility of our study is rather found in our ability to commiserate with others’ own stories and use the framework of the universal myth to address whatever unknown problems we and humanity in toto will face. In Campbell’s own words:

On this immediate level of life and structure, myths offer life models. But the models have to be appropriate to the time in which you are living, and our time has changed so fast that what was proper fifty years ago is not proper today. The virtues of the past are the vices of today. And many of what were thought to be the vices of the past are the necessities of today.

I should note that many will be familiar with Campbell’s actual magnum opus, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The Power of Myth is simply a shorter and more digestible version, in my opinion, and serves as a fine introduction.

Oh—and if you’re already a fan of Campbell, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn is your next required reading. Once you’ve got your mind wrapped around the idea of the hero’s journey, the next step is to take on factual relativism.

Into the Woods: Journey, Remediation, & Hypermediacy

One of Stephen Sondheim’s most recognizable musicals is Into the Woods, which you may recognize from the movie version Disney made in 2014. The story involves various fairy tale characters, in addition to two modern ones in the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, who go into the woods in a quest to get what they want and come out happily ever after (or at least singing a song implying so); the second half has them going back into the woods and reexamining their old desires. So just from this synopsis, I can expand on how the show uses the theme of journeying, how it is a remediation of other tales, and how it plays with Hypermediacy in its production.

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The first act is a relatively simple tale of the characters’ journeys: it is plot friendly, about overcoming obstacles, poses only a slight moral dilemma, ends with all the characters, including the narrator, singing about how they have a happy ending (really, look at how joyful they all seem), and moralizes some simple tales that everyone has learned: “And we reached the right conclusions/ And we got what we deserved!”

Behind the happy-go-lucky surface, the philosophies of the protagonists are manically explained “To be happy, and forever,/ You must see your wish come true./ Don’t be careful, don’t be clever./ When you see your wish, pursue”  The underlying belief of these characters is the exact same as what it was in the beginning: to be happy, pursue your wish, explained as “Into the woods/ To get the thing/ That makes it worth/ The journeying.” Although the characters have taken a physical journey, and killed the wolf, slain the giant, avoided making the decision to commit to a prince, and completed the witch’s task, they have not grown as characters since they have not changed, only their circumstances have. While this may be fine for a children’s show (as shown by the success of “Into the Woods jr” which is just the first act of Into the Woods) Act II is here to change that.

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“Ever After” The Act I Finale song. PICTURED HERE, from left to right: Florinda & Lucinda (Cinderella’s sisters), Cinderella’s step-mom, Little Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother, The Other Prince, Milky White, Prince Charming, Cinderella, Jack (The Giant Killer), The Baker (not from any fairy tales), Little Red, The Witch, Jack’s mother, Cinderella’s Father, Rapunzel, Cinderella’s Father, Prince Charming’s Servant, and The Old Man. NOT PICTURED: The Baker’s Wife (I’m not sure why!), The Narrator (also played by The Old Man in the Forest), and the Wolf (also played by Prince Charming), with the two double roles serving as stylistic metaphors for the characters.

In the second half, the characters are forced to deal with their reckless desire to get what their wish. They go back into the woods because a giant is invading their realm, due to the various things that the characters have done – from Little Red taunting Jack to steal her harp, Cinderella carelessly throwing a magic bean away, and various other careless actions – and they eventually gather together and admit their blame in the present situation. Perhaps what makes act II about the journey and not the destination is the choices that the characters’ make: this is best exemplified symbolically when they sacrifice the narrator to the giant, signifying an end both to simple morals and having your decisions made for you.

10899216_835981286479889_77545087_nLikewise, a good exemplar for how the characters grow as a result of their journey is Cinderella’s ability to finally make a decision. Whereas in Act I her happy ending came as a result of deciding that she would rather be the object of desire rather then follow her own volition, as shown by her realization “I know what my decision is/ Which is not to decide,” when leaving her shoe on the steps of the palace, in Act II she finally makes her own decision by leaving her prince and following her own desires, not his. Only after being forced to reflect in the woods, rather than follow one plot point to the next until they reach their prize, do the characters finally change and sing “Careful the wish you make,/ Wishes are children./ Careful the path they take-/ Wishes come true,/ Not free.” As such, the second act reflects on the danger in rushing recklessly through your journey to achieve your ends.

As previously mentioned, Into the Woods is a remediation, in which the classic fairy tale structure, themes, characters (remember that first image?), narrator, and morals, are put into a medium of a musical. This is significant because whereas a fairy tale is short, plot-based, and is told to tell a simple moral, this musical is almost the exact opposite: it is long, the second half is character-focused, and gives a more complex moral message. As such, it is able to both really reflect on and criticize the motivation behind the characters, both in the songs that illuminate their character and the whole second half that extends their story. Since the characters are humanized, and their stories interact in new ways, it forces us to really examine these tropes as characters, and to question just how reckless the message of fairy tales are.

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The format of musicals allows for a character’s interior monologue to be their lyrics and expand the depth of their character, as shown from Cinderella’s pondering morality itself during beginning of her story.
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This also shows an expansion of his character, as it lets him reflect on his mistakes and his lifestyle in a way that a plot-oriented fairy tale does not. And really, who can blame Chris Pine- I mean this character?

 

It raises questions like “Does Cinderella actually like this prince and want to stay married to someone she knew for three nights, especially considering how desperate she was to go out of her old situation, how likely is it that she genuinely liked him instead of just accepted literally anything she could get?” and “Why should Jack not face any consequences for stealing from the giant,” and “How much can the prince actually love Cinderella after only dancing with her for three nights?” The answers that the musical raises are: She does not like him, Jack should feel guilt and lose someone important, and the prince just moved on to Sleeping Beauty when he got bored anyways.” As such, its remediation into a more contemplative art form allowed the show to critique the fairy tales it is based on.

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In addition, many of the aspects of the musical directly mirror aspects of a fairy tale. There is the infamous first song, a 13 minute piece with several characters singing “I Wish” multiple times throughout, as well as a laundry list of things they wish for; this phrase is common in fairy tales, since the characters are literally only defined by what they think they want (Cinderella = wish to escape, Little Red = Go to Grandmother’s house, Rapunzel = explore the world). Furthermore, the title of the show, which is also the most repeated words in the cast album, is a reference to Fairy Tales, as the woods often represent a place of adventure. Finally, characters like the narrator and the witch are both remediation of the style of how fairy tales are told (simplistically) and the main villain in multiple tales.

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These are the reasons why they go into the woods the second time, notice how after their first wish there was still trouble in their lives
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Obviously, by the beginning of Act II, they have not learned or grown in their story arks very much.

Finally, the show plays on Hyper-mediacy: in the first half, the characters are almost caricatures, thus drawing attention to the fact that the audience is watching a play. And this works because it is supposed to be like a fairy tale, reflected by the simple, but unrealistic, world the characters live in and the set of the show. In the second they are presented as more real and having more complex motivations, thus making the show appear more transparent. Likewise, there are constant ironic references to Fairy Tale motifs, such as the three willow trees that bring them to the right path: the motif of three is common in fairy tales and allows Cinderella to find her way pack to her story; simultaneously, it reminds the audience that they are watching characters from a fairy tale, and so it makes the play more hyper-mediated in the same moment that Cinderella is able to find her story again. And finally, there is the infamous line “What am I doing here/ I’m in the wrong story!” sung by the baker’s wife in the middle of her climatic scene with the prince, thus drawing the audience out of the story while also illuminating the Baker’s Wife’s intelligence and her awareness of the social politics at play.

 

Rushing Through The Journey

We embark on journeys of different lengths and purposes all the time, but we rarely stop to appreciate them. The journey is always seen as an obstacle to our goal, something we must go through to get what we want. Even when we get to the end we are not satisfied because there is always something more to strive for. I often find myself racing towards a goal without really paying that much attention to the process of getting there. However, reaching the goal doesn’t instantly make you satisfied. There is always another goal to strive for because without a destination you are just aimlessly wandering through life. In “Ithaca” Cavafy writes

“But don’t hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”

emphasizing the need to slow down and appreciate the journey that is life instead of just racing towards a goal. On the rare occasions when I do stop and take a minute to enjoy what I am doing I am much happier and can interact more with those around me. When I move towards my goals at a slower pace and focus on the journey instead of the destination I can take in more of my surroundings and see many things instead of just one. This need to slow down and appreciate what is happening can also apply to a book like Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. Since it focuses on a journey, the book spends a long time on each part and forces you to slow down and see the entire journey instead of quickly skipping ahead to the destination. You could skip ahead yourself to see what happens at the end of the book but then you wouldn’t get to enjoy the journey that the story takes you on. What use is knowing the ending if you don’t get to experience the how the characters got there and how they grew and interacted along the way? You can find the ending to almost anything you can think of online but it can’t replace reading the book, playing the game, or watching the movie. In many of the puzzle style games I often play the goal is to solve the puzzle and get to the end of the game. Looking up walkthroughs can get you to that goal quicker but reaching the destination of your goal isn’t fulfilling on its own. The path you take to get to the end is the part of the game that is fun and once you reach it you can’t keep playing or get any more satisfaction unless you want to retrace your steps and repeat the journey. It is much more satisfying to enjoy the journey for what it is instead of just focusing on the destination or goal at the end.