Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Unmanned: Dissonance as Play

I wonder if the makers of Unmanned watched the same episode of Frontline that I did last year. It was an episode called “Digital Nation” that attempted to grapple with a very ambitious but important question: How is the human race changing through its relationship to and growing dependence on digital technology?

The show covered a lot of ground, from the role of computers in the public education system to the problem of video game addiction among South Korean youth. One of the most interesting segments looked at the military's use of unmanned drones and the life of the Air Force pilots who control them. Almost like any other white- or blue-collar citizen, many of these pilots depart from their suburban homes in the morning and drive across the Nevada desert to work. Only their work consists of hunting down and firing missiles on suspected insurgents halfway across the globe. They even dress in flight suits, in part to reinforce the gravity and reality of their duties. But in actually their butts never even get off the ground.

The episode was sobering, and it also brought me back to thinking about the "Collateral Murder" video that had been posted on WikiLeaks the previous year (which itself was eerily reminiscent of a particular mission I had played in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2). Anyway, I ended up writing this short little story on my other blog (oh yeah, I've got another blog that preceded this one). It was sort of a brief, raw exercise in imagining the lives of three people—the first being a suburban-dwelling drone pilot—and their relationship to digital violence.

Unmanned uses the mechanics of a point-and-click computer game to examine a very similar subject: a day in the life of another such imagined drone pilot. Every activity, from shaving and driving to dropping bombs on terrorists, plays out like a short mini-game. Whether mundane or stress-inducing, they all present their little challenges, and as demonstrated through the man's own inner monologue and personal introspection, they're interconnected. His cognitive mind gives equal weight and meaning to each moment.

This would all be very interesting in and of itself, but the game goes a step further by displaying the action in parallel windows. As the player attempts to steer a car in a straight line on one screen, she or he must simultaneously cycle through a multiple-choice thought tree in the other. While guiding a drone on one screen, the player must carefully navigate a flirtatious conversation in the other. The implied anxiety of each moment becomes manifest through the mechanics of play. Turns out, it's neither easy nor comfortable trying to concentrate properly on two competing demands.

Unmanned is not so much a simulation or adventure game as it is an interactive metaphor for cognitive dissonance, the psychological discomfort that results when one's feelings or beliefs are at seeming conflict or opposition with one another. How does a married family man cope with his desire for his attractive coworker? How does one feel pride and honor for defeating an enemy in a way that perhaps feels dishonorable or even cowardly? What happens when all of these stresses are intermingling as a part of one’s daily routine?

What I like about Unmanned is it doesn't judge the imagined subject, at least not directly. There are different ways for the player character to think through his situation, and none of them are presented as definitive. Even if he muses about the satisfaction of killing terrorists during his morning shave, it's not apparent whether or not this is the man's genuine sentiment or a bit of coping sarcasm. It may be both.

In its swift 10 minutes or less of playing time, the game packs a wallop. It's as much a creative statement about American foreign policy and the war on terror as it is an examination of modern video games and the gamification of everyday living. It's about—dare I say—the human condition! One could argue the game is noncommittal, but I would strongly disagree. It's a game that deals in real politics without stooping toward the overtly ideological. It juggles questions of morality without resorting to didacticism. It also has a keen sense of irony, and the title of the game is brilliantly appropriate.

I'm glad there are developers such as molleindustria who are using games to tackle these kinds of issues. We don't have to be actual drone pilots—or fathers or husbands or even men—to understand what it's like to be at a moral or emotional stalemate. But good storytelling can help place us in these hyperreal situations and in turn reveal new truths or ideas not only about ourselves but the absurd world around us. Films and literary fiction have long served this purpose. Video games . . . not so much, and that's okay. But Unmanned gives me reason to believe that games can and will rise to that very challenge.

Unmanned won the Grand Jury Prize at IndieCade 2012. You can download or play it online for free.

(EDITOR'S UPDATE: I just came across some essential reading to add to this post. It's a Kotaku column by Paolo Perdercini, the very man who brought us Unmanned. In addition to clarifying the actual main source of inspiration for the game—it was actually the book Wired For War by P.W. Singer—he offers a very compelling argument for why we should be wary of the kind of black operations being seemingly glorified in the latest Call of Duty game. It makes for a great companion piece to the game. I'm left even more impressed at the ideological restraint with which Perdercini managed to approach the subject of remote warfare in his game.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Spelunky review – Respect the game

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.” — Edward Whymper, first person to ascend the Matterhorn

I've heard mountaineers in documentaries describe how the world's highest peaks command the respect of those who attempt to climb them. You hear people talk about Mt. Everest as if it were some cold and indifferent god. It is not there to cooperate. To those it beckons, it does so without intent. And even for those climbers who prove themselves worthy enough to reach its top, they tend to speak not so much of their own triumph over the mountain but rather of being humbled.

Like a wild nature unto itself, the world of Spelunky on the Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) makes me feel insignificant as a video game player. It has no regard for my level of skill. If it rewards me with easy progress, I am happy. If it punishes me with overbearing obstacles, I try my best and am not surprised—or overly unruly—when I meet my grizzly end. That's just the way the cookie crumbles.

The game has been described as a rougelike platformer. The first half of that description refers to a sub-genre of role-playing games, derived from an actual 1980 game called Rouge, in which the game procedurally (or semi-randomly) generates new maps or levels for each play-through. Also, death in a roguelike is considered permanent. When you lose, you have to go all the way back to the start. No progress is spared. The objective may be to reach a predetermined end of the game, but if not that—since such an outcome is unlikely—then to simply make it as far as possible before dying will suffice.
In Spelunky you play either as a cartoony Indiana Jones lookalike or some other equally cute alternate character. You descend your way through a series of 2D levels, past all manner of enemies, hazards, and booby traps. Each level is composed of various tiles or building blocks, algorithmically arranged in a unique manner. There are some patterns that remain the same. The entry door goes somewhere at the top. The exit door is somewhere at the bottom. And there is always an available path to that door, however treacherous it might—or rather will—be.

The way you choose to traverse the maze is determined, in part, by your initial underlying goals. Do you try to collect as much gold as possible? Happy hunting. Do you simply try to beat the game? First of all, good luck. Your journey, should you reach your goal, will follow this rough outline: Four levels in the underground mines, four levels in the jungle, four levels in the ice caves, followed by three levels in the temple and a final boss room. There's also a shortcut system that you can build by completing each of the four main areas and donating a specific resource to the “Tunnel Man” in between stages. But there can be other goals as well, such as the ones set forth in the game's insanely difficult achievements, as well as secret paths I have yet to fully discover. Insane, I tell you!
But your playing style can easily change mid-way through the game based on your current health, as well as the resources made available to you as you explore. You start each game with four hearts, four bombs, four climbing ropes, and a whip. From there you can find or buy other items, and just about everything you pick up can also be thrown as a weapon. Get your hands on a shotgun and you may decide to wipe out those jungle enemies head on. Find a pickaxe or load up on more bombs and you might try blazing an entirely new trail altogether. It all depends on what the game throws your way. If I happen to be in the jungle levels and I see that I've ended up near a nest of giant bees, you can bet that I am going to throw a proportion of my caution to the wind in favor of a more frenetic pace. Seriously, those bees can be panic-inducing! But if I likewise happen to stumble upon a trapped damsel who will reward me with an extra heart if I successfully bring her to the exit, I might put myself in the path of harm for that very chance.

Every scenario in Spelunky is a risk-reward scenario. Mostly risk. You will quickly realize that death is swift and not even a stockpile of, say, eight hearts can assure your survival. The slightest misstep can instantly end what may have been your best play-through, often in ways you hadn't foreseen. It could be as graceless as a tiki man knocking you with a boomerang into a bed of spikes or as elaborate as being thrown around like a pinball by a bunch of yetis.
And yet even as it kicks your ass, Spelunky is addictive fun. It compels you to get better. You won't memorize the levels themselves, but you will memorize patterns and situations. If you lament your untimely death in one play-through, only to succumb to a very similar type of death several play-throughs later, you will curse not Spelunky but yourself.
There seems to be a recent mini surge of these procedurally generated games like Spelunky. I've been reading about a space game called FTL. Another is The Binding of Isaac (be sure to read an excellent column about that game here). The same underlying concept drives one of my favorite games of the year, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, which I previously wrote about. I think you can also identify it in those mobile-platform running games like Canabalt, which arrange an unpredictable path meant to keep you ... on your toes, I guess. It's that very randomness that makes those games so easy to pick up again. Every start is fresh and uncertain, but hopeful—always hopeful!
Spelunky also benefits for its attention to precision controls. For being such a game of patience and caution, the the character moves paradoxically fast, especially in a sprint. Character movement carries the goofiest physics that nevertheless become better controlled through sustained practice. There are situations I can memorize. I know that when I sprint from one ledge to another ledge separated by a gap two tile spaces wide, I'll end up hanging onto that opposite ledge.

Compare this to a much older game I've also been playing, which is Super Castlevania IV on the Super Nintendo, also a whip-wielding platformer and a great game in it's own right, I've determined. But in the physics and mechanics department, it's a game from a primitive era. Every jump feels accompanied by the weight of an invisible lead ball chained to the ankle. Spelunky may have its retro aesthetics, but it takes full advantage of modern mechanics.

Although I make my way down, it's as if Spelunky gives me new mountains to climb. I've finished the game once using the shortcut to the last four levels. My current goal is to beat it using no tunnel shortcuts. I've come close twice, only to be instantly killed both times by a crushing block on the penultimate level. It's frustrating, sure. But it's pointless to argue. I used to get exceedingly frustrated, for example, at the random “dark” levels. This is a scenario in which the entire level is almost pitch black outside the radius of a small halo of torchlight. The trick is to take this torch and make your way carefully to other torch beacons that help to illuminate other parts of the map. You can imagine how suddenly this random occurrence can diminish the player's likelihood of success. Enemies pop out of nowhere. Uncertain jumps can turn into health damaging free-falls or worse. But it can be done. And when it is done, it feels good.
The thing is, I've gotten to a point where I no longer fear these occurrences. I accept them like I accept a change in the weather. Is it fair? No. But Spelunky doesn't care. And if it laughs at me, I can only laugh back and face its cruel indifference like a challenge. The game commands respect because your virtual life depends on it. Just don't believe for a second that the respect is reciprocal.
The Score
  • Rolling Stone Magazine gives Spelunky 3-and-a-half-out-of-5 stars.
  • Pitchfork gives it an 8.7.
  • Roger Ebert says games games can't be art.
  • I say it's the best new game I've played this year.

Spelunky was made by indie developers Derek Yu and Andy Hull and is a remake of a free game of the same name that Yu originally developed for the PC.