Interactive = Interesting

With absolutely no doubt in my mind, I know that I am easily the biggest gamer in this entire college, let alone this class. I have played almost every game of significance released since the Nintendo 64 era, and even plenty from before then (nearly the entire Final Fantasy series, for example). I literally have a wardrobe filled with over 325 video games at home, and those don’t include the 100+ digitally-downloaded games that I own. Ever played Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES or Hotel Dusk: Room 215? I have. Enough said.

As such, it probably isn’t a very shocking statement when I say that I greatly prefer video games to books. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy books; reading 1984 bordered on a life-changing experience. However, I’ve always felt that video games and movies are more of an evolution of books rather than merely competing media. They (usually) combine the well-told plots and themes of literature with  audiovisual enhancements that enrich the overall experience, allowing them to transcend their text-based counterparts. Of course, central to the gameplay of most video games is the idea of combat. While this centrality of physical strife does slightly limit the subject matter of video games, it tends to provide an infinitely more engaging experience.

Case-in-point: Snow Crash. Sure, it was fun to read about Hiro’s incredible swordfighting skill, but reading about a fight and trying to mentally piece it together is just not as engaging as an actual interactive simulation of combat. In LOTRO, the outcome of any given fight is entirely dependent on my actions. Thus, it yields much more satisfaction to defeat an enemy by my own hand — knowing that had I acted differently, the fight would not have been won — than to attempt to visualize someone else fighting the battle for me. Sure, I may just be pressing a series of numbered buttons and not actually physically wielding a spear, but my button presses are still managed by a skill that I have developed. Combat in a video game is so immersive because, by presenting audiovisual feedback based on your input, the game is temporarily able to convince you that your button-pressing skill is actually real combat skill.

Think about it. After winning a fight in LOTRO, which thought is more likely to cross your mind: “Wow, I’m awesome at hitting buttons,” or “I’ve gotten really good at fighting”? When you approach an enemy, do you intend to kill him or to press a series of buttons in a timed manner which, with proper execution, will cause a certain number to be added to the value designated as “Experience Points”? Video games have mastered this art of subconsciously convincing the player that their prowess in combat is directly tied to the thoroughly unrelated skill of button-mashing. It really is the ultimate in “make-believe”. And, simply put, it works.

In Snow Crash, I cannot in any way affect the outcome of Hiro’s battles. The book does not provide me with a way to immediately act out the fights. Sure, my imagination is at work in constructing the conflict, but experiencing a semi-concrete form of the fight is definitely more involving and immersive than reading a text description of it. In this sense, I’m infinitely more absorbed in LOTRO’s battles than those found in Snow Crash, as I engage in the near-perfected illusion of actual interactive combat. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ll always prefer pretending to fight an enemy myself to imagining someone else fight the pretend battle for me.

-Billy Bunce

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The Pen is Most Assuredly Mightier

Human beings have an instinctual fascination with violence.  We obsess over CSI, we can’t get enough UFC, and we revel in the murder mystery.  When it comes down to it, everyone loves a good fight.  Many different forms of entertainment media have adapted in an attempt to sate our unquenchable thirst for blood.  War is being waged all around us.

As I have stated in previous posts I grew up on the fantasy genre of literature.  Combat in fantasy novels is usually highly stylized and graceful.  Oftentimes these novels climax with an epic duel between two evenly matched foes.  Authors are capable of giving extremely detailed blow-by-blow descriptions, holding the reader on the edge of their seat.  In his 1992 novel Snow Crash, Neil Stephenson fails to disappoint.  Hiro Protagonist, self-proclaimed “greatest sword fighter in the world”, certainly gets himself into his fair share of thrilling combat situations.  Hiro dips, ducks, dodges, and dives, artfully avoiding his enemies blows.   He fights with a measured tranquility, carefully choosing his next move.     A sword fight becomes something cerebral, not so different from a game of chess.  While the reader may have some idea of who will reign victorious (come on… his name is Hiro Protagonist) the duel is still entertaining, each fight is completely unique.  The outcome is irrelevant to a certain extent; the fun is in imagining the battle.   The scale, speed, and style of combat are limited only by the author’s imagination.

In LOTRO the combat is not nearly as captivating.  Avatars move sluggishly through the gamespace, wildly hacking and slashing at nothing.  There are only two types of attack, melee and ranged, each with only a handful of unique animations.  As far as I can tell every single encounter follows the same course of events with little to no variability.  My elf hunter nocks and fires an arrow at an unassuming hostile creature.  The creature proceeds to charge the elf who draws an axe and hacks away, everything is automated.  During the close quarters portion it is unclear as to who is winning.  Neither combatant seems to react to the others actions; no attempts are made at blocking or countering attacks.  Neither combatant shows any signs of outward damage during the encounter, apparently you can repetitively slash a bear with an axe without drawing blood.  Out of the clear blue one of the combatants will fall to the ground…dead.  These battles are completely devoid of emotion (actually that’s not completely true, I am constantly afraid that I might die of boredom).  Ultimately combat in LOTRO is a numbers game based on an unknown algorithm, the digital version of a dice roll.  Now that I think about it, combat in LOTRO is not much different than a math class, it involves complex numbers and it puts me to sleep.

Zack Goldman

A Clash of Swords

Combat is a significant part of both the novel Snow Crash and the game Lord of the Rings Online, but it is implemented in very different ways. Sword-fighting is used in both, but that’s just about the only similarity between the two. In Snow Crash, the combat is like an art form, with both combatants using various strategies and complex movements. In LOTRO, the combat is much more simple, with the character having a smaller repertoire of possible attacks. This makes combat a much simpler affair than in Snow Crash. Another major difference is that in Snow Crash, the characters not fighting in real life, just in the metaverse. This detracts from its intensity somewhat, making it more like a “video game” for Hiro. LOTRO really is a video game, but for my level 6 hobbit, it is a fight for survival as deadly enemies try to end his life.

Also, combat in LOTRO is a more interactive, because you are controlling the character yourself, making you more interested in the outcome of the fight. In the book, you are merely a passive observer, with no vested interested in the outcome unless you want the story to turn out a certain way. However, you are more aware of the medium in LOTRO; there is a low level of “transparency” or “immediacy”. The many icons and buttons, coupled with the awkward turn based combat system, make the player very aware of the fact that he is playing a video game. In the book, the simple interface makes it easier to forget that the story is just from a book.

Combat is certainly a big part of both stories, but I felt it was a bigger part of LOTRO. To get anywhere in the game, you almost certainly have to defeat a few enemies. When I was in the Old Forest and the Barrow-Downs, it felt like the enemies were never-ending and fighting was the only thing I was doing. In the book, the main focus is the plot to stop the virus, with episodes of fighting throughout.

Although combat was interesting for both stories, I personally found it to be more engaging in LOTRO, mainly because you are doing the fighting yourself and it carries much more importance.

– Kashyap Saxena

No “Best Remediation of Bad Ass Real Life Combat” Oscar for Snow Crash or LOTRO This Year

Tyler Gilcrest

Clink! .. Clank! .. Parry, sidestep, dodge! … Do much for you? Yea, me neither.  For some reason reading about a sword fight isn’t that exciting.  Well, at least not as exciting as sword fights are can be.  There’s something about hand to hand combat with someone else, something about a duel to the death with swords.  And I feel that that something is lost as it’s described in writing.  Sword fighting should cause an adrenaline rush; it should get your blood up, because you might just lose some if you’re not careful.  The sword fights in Snow Crash are lackluster though, as far as sword fights go.  Maybe it’s because you have to read about each action taken by the character.  At each moment Stephenson describes each action taken by each combatant.  This narration, while necessary to describe the progression of the combat, loses the intensity that a sword fight should have.  So I don’t blame Neal Stephenson at all; he writes a very enjoyable and action-packed story.  The characters are pretty unique and Stephenson develops a connection between them and the reader very well, which causes engagement in the fights, not the action of the sword fight.  The suspense of whether Hiro will come out on top invokes reader interest, but only because you want him to survive.  He could be playing a to-the-death game of backgammon and I would still care for the outcome. 

Another strike the sword fights in the book have against them is the, I guess, “contrived” nature of them.  The book has a set outcome, no matter what.  There is no room for any variance in the story, no matter how many times you read it.  Hiro will always win the sword fights Stephenson has written that he wins.  There is no relation to the readers skills or abilities.  The whole excitement of a duel comes from testing your own ability.  In the novel, there’s only the testing of Hiro’s ability.  And when you think about it, it’s not really a test, due to the fact that it’s all contrived anyway.

LOTRO does do better, but only marginally so.  LOTRO does add some multimedia elements like visuals and sounds.  Being able to see the opponent and your character are wonderful additions.  And I’ve unexpectedly added another improvement in that last sentence: it’s your character.  The level of personal involvement is much higher than that of the novel.  This character represents you and through its triumphs, you triumph.  But the combat in LOTRO can also get boring and repetitive.  Killing Non-Player Characters (NPCs) over and over again, who always act the same way, over and over again, starts to lose its appeal after the first few levels.  Sure, you can try killing them in new and creative ways, like taking off all your armor or making the fight twelve to one, but all in all NPCs get pretty boring pretty quick.  This is probably because they don’t represent anyone.  At the end of the day you’re just killing lines of code.  Luckily, games came up with a way to deal with this.  They invented PVP, or Player Versus Player for all you n00bs.  This aspect really adds to the competition in games.  You know you’re playing against someone and through combat you can prove yourself.  I haven’t tried the PVP in LOTRO, so I have no idea how well it performs, but the major part of the game I’ve experienced so far, the Player Versus Environment side, brings only a moderately greater amount of excitement than reading about combat in the book.