Dungeon Defenders

a review of Dungeon Defenders
a videogame developed by Trendy Entertainment
for PC and Steam
text by Samuel Kite

0.5 star

Bottom line: Dungeon Defenders is “another cult offspring of those-who-call-themselves-a-gamer”

Game theory is the natural outcome of the evolution of religion. Religion as a tradition of developing descriptors for incompletely understood elements of life as we perceive it, is a pop culture attempt at ultimate synthesis irrespective of coincidental touchstones for the psyche, like hardships, traditions, or biological necessities. Religion and language have been touched on by various modern and ancient thinkers, and that relationship is well explored. In some periods of history religion has been almost exclusively the control and influence of language. 1984 (the novel), was not inventing any archetypes or phantom civilizations. It was unique only in its bleak opinion of pop culture. For the right kind of introvert, 1984 perfectly describes a spiritually free democratic society as we experience it. While the mind numbing nature of the grain alcohol, industrial cheese, and rationed chocolate looks like some kind of additional level of imposed austerity, you can replace the elements with high fructose corn syrup sweetened sodas, industrial doritos, and the omnipresent urge to restrict your food intake in order to vainly strive for the beauty presented in magazines (the exemplars of all behavior; unattainable yet pervasive).

Since religion has a relationship to language, it has a relationship to the computer languages that program our games, and to game theory as an expression of the desires of those who write the games to urge players to ‘discover’ the strategies that are the right answer for their game.

Monotheism is the collapse of relative morality into absolute (collapse here referring to the gradual consolidation of common elements into compact, redistributable package of ethics, rather than a myriad of hoary traditions fraught with specifics). That collapse is also the earliest version of Newton’s arguments in favor of relativity as a functional way to look at all relationships between objects. When Newton explored the ways in which modern astronomy allegedly differed from the Bible, he was at pains to explain there was only a difference in perspective at work–that, whether you believe the Earth revolves around the Sun or the Sun revolves around the Earth, it is a matter for your own descriptive convenience. It is equally easy to say anything is the center of the universe for the purposes of perspective, and surely, if there is to be any absolute perspective, it must encompass all others simultaneously and therefore the all-knowing eternal God must be the occupant of it. Without getting into tangled spirituality, this much is true; the term God has enough flexibility to address many interpretations of smaller parts of reality. It can encompass a universe that plays by discoverable rules and is vaster than we can imagine, and it can encompass a smaller universe beset by ghosts and demons that exists only as a kind of dream before we encounter some other more meaningful existence. The word in the language is absolute. Saying there ‘is no god’ is more like saying ‘all existing interpretations of god are wrong’ than deprecating the idea. What word would substitute in its place? World? There are many. Universe? The universe, for many reasons might be otherwise than it is, or may be cyclical, or conceivably could not exist at all. Existence? In order for there to be an existence, you must have at least one existing thing. God is the ultimate pop culture icon for reality, known and unknown, existence and nonexistence, possibility and perception, in one ironclad word that has been hammered on by 1000s of years of philosophy.

The evolution of our religions has been the evolution of our understanding of the world. It takes on the temporary vagaries of fashion, but the truly elemental game theory advances that mark progress of our highly adaptable behavioral-cultural software, once discovered are never jettisoned. An example is control of knowledge (control being the ability to derive benefit). American intellectual property recognizes 3 methods of taking ownership of knowledge for personal gain and defense (with respect to identity); secrecy, registration, and inference. If you can prevent someone from knowing what you know, then you control it. If you can get everyone (or central authority) to acknowledge you know something (presumably useful, but in the abstract that’s more of a question of how you convince someone of that fact, rather than the key), then you control that knowledge. Finally, if someone can infer your participation in something from the presence of some knowledge, then you control the knowledge for which you receive credit.

In many ways, religion is the best topic for this kind of abstract discussion of game theory. These are strategies for handling information–choices that can be made. One thing we, as humans, have found, over time, is that no matter how much you try to keep information secret, it will become public. The original ‘game’, which is about revealing information (evangelism, in the context of religion either by preaching in someone’s native language or forcibly educating them in the mother tongue of the religion), or hiding it (avoiding printing of religious texts, forcing personal interaction with religious authorities for access to the content of the faith, for instance with confession and the latin mass in the case of catholics, or elaborate architectures of interpretation that are impossible to untangle without some authority to declare the ‘right’ answer, such as with Jewish law, or modern textual study and interpretation within the christian and muslim fundamentalist communities), has been replaced with a game that is about when to reveal. Revealing early and frequently can have advantages for groups with new knowledge trying to compete against prevalent themes. Withholding revelation can be a means of profit for established entities. As various bastions of idolatry or egalitarian spirituality rise and fall, taking old names or new ones as they do, the payoffs for their strategies vary. What was once so straightforward; that large companies thrive by controlling their markets absolutely, is, lately, obviously not always the case. It may not be in the long term best interests of a company to dominate its market. For instance, if it dominates it straight into the fucking ground.

Programming, itself, has undergone a development of game theory structures in the form of theocratic orthodoxies first born in radical liberal thoughts, and eventually settled into conservative inertia. When programming was first created, it was agnostic and polytheistic. Programs were not functional or nonfunctional. They simply did what they did. Sometimes they did things that forced you to interrupt the power to the computer in order to make them stop. Then the concept of the error came about. It presupposed an ethical structure in the program; an absolute arbiter of authority who judged that the program was doing what it was ‘supposed to’ or not. There are many versions of the 10 commandments of programming. This is the program, do not use any others. You shall not make illegal copies. Do not mislabel other programs as this program. Remember to periodically check for patches and install them. Do not subvert the other programs in operation on the drive. Do not kill other processes. Do not attempt to access memory or methods for which you do not have permission. Do not tie up resources meant for other processes. Do not misreport your status. Do not try to take over the functions of other processes. There is, as in religion, a hazy line between the part where the game theory rules refer to your interaction with the strategies for the game, and the game itself–at least in part because it is the guarantee of certain strategies from other players of the game which makes the best possible outcomes certain; only trust and cooperation can help people in the prisoner’s dilemma.

This is why we learn VCR symbols and put them on devices or software which are not VCRs.

Playing Mass Effect 3, I find myself completely divorced from the vocal minority, or the popular opinion, or whatever you want to call it. The semi-compulsive (completely optional) multiplayer is good. The non-choice of an ending based on traditional mechanics instead of some hyper browser-cookie of decisions made largely in a vacuum is almost a relief. If there’s a crime committed, anywhere, it’s that to have interesting content and choices to make during the meat of the story, you must have played Mass Effect 1 and 2, or else used one of the (nearly instantly available) Mass Effect 3 save game editors to fill in the right bits to show that you’ve saved the dinosaurs or made friends with the robots.

Does anybody remember what RPGs really used to be? Am I crazy? Dave Arneson was the dreamer. He created Dungeons and Dragons as we understand it–as it is distinct from any board or war game where things fight. He’s the one who wanted to roleplay. He’s the guy who thought several people could sit down at a table, and nominate one to have a consistent and different role from the others, rather than a symmetry of, if not position, then at least of mechanics and strategies.

People were performing the roles of computers before computers existed. The magic of the nonexistent technology of a thinking, feeling, neutral arbiter, was at home in the landscape of the theater of the mind, exactly like the delusions of ultrapersonal gods and the collection of undisclosed fears that animate popular spirits (banshees, ghosts, monsters under the bed et al). The parallel processing of millions of preachers since the dawn of time, working through the effective strategies for their own congregations–learning that when strategies collide adaptation to the landscape of rewards is the only rule that nature, and humanity (as part of nature) respect.

The collective head of gaming culture is up the ass of gaming culture, and the (alleged) external society uses that fact to shine a flashlight up the ass and say, as if appalled and surprised “See? It’s full of shit.”

There is no culture which does not game. There’s no such thing. To identify yourself as a gamer is like identifying yourself as a reader, breather, breeder, or eater. When religion forbids games, religion becomes gamified. Games are the edges of what we perceive as the potential for adaptation for our circumstances, and we arrived at successful strategies after iteration during which a lot of people lose.

Who the hell would volunteer for that?

Sometimes you can look at folk lore and feel like it’s game theory. To prove its concepts rigorously requires a lot of calculus and a lot of leeway. One of the great things about logic (rigorous or ad hoc) is that it might tell you how you can come to understand why you get particular answers to particular questions, what moves are illegal, what conclusions don’t make sense, but it cannot say anything about value. Neither can games. Neither can religion. In all cases, numbers are just numbers (or feelings are just feelings, or saved souls are just saved souls). They may be quote real, unquote, like the sales figures for Angry Birds, or the weight of an angry bird in the physics engine of Angry Birds. Numbers, when you finally get them right, can help you explain, logically, why everyone is always getting the wrong answer, together, and then complaining about it. Numbers can show you interesting things, like the average reaction time of people, or the way the brain works with tracking multiple arbitrary pieces of information, but numbers bogged down in numerology. If you see that social security numbers have 9 numbers in 3 chunks, and typical human reaction speed is around 215ms, maybe they’re related, somehow. Maybe God made (guided (sat by passively (confident in the absolute knowledge of the engineered outcome) and watched as evolution worked to make)) our brains able to react in 20/93rds of 1/3600th of 1/24th of one rotation of the earth, and capable of remembering things in convenient 1/3600th/24ths blocks to compensate. That way we can remember everything we did last second for at least a whole second. Or Aliens did it. Or Alien gods. Wait, what was I talking about?

Michael Pachter is arguably one of the better analysts of the games industry, which is upsetting, at least in part because he repeatedly mentions the fact that he is not one of the artists that provides content or one of the critics (who subtracts content). He’s just a guy with ideas who’s competent enough to make a living in an arena where there is a lot of competition. He’s a numerologist who sells a service where he picks patterns out of numbers and then explains what the implication would be for strategy, if those numbers were important or even accurate.

In the above linked video, he shares a short observation about time investment in casino games which also, apparently, seems to be a hypothesis about the interrelation between players and time investment. He focuses on platform related issues; specifically the pc vs console.

This is hand-waving Disney imagineer theorizing as a trickster in a liminal period of the computer industry. People come to him with some bias and ask him to consult the tea leaves for something that confirms it. He has a little fun explaining, in painful nondetail, whatever logical propositions or game theory is involved in the decision making process. Does SONY hate their customers? Probably not. Sony needs customers to have a Sony. The payout for Sony if it has customers is 1, and the payout for Sony if it has no customers is 0. Therefore Sony and its customers have a nash equilibrium around Sony continuing to exist. He then purports to know the ‘values’ at play. He shows you all the strategies, and then lets you know what he thinks someone will do. Tricksters work in this fashion because the best collective strategies are often at odds with the best individual decisions. Like a program, religion is both attempting to be functional (provide guidance toward the best strategy–whether it is the old standard Give Glory To God (after defining that to mean a set of temporal behaviors which result in improvements to quality of life) and protect its functionality (nonbelievers are heretics, there is an entity called the devil responsible for all bad things which will try to subvert your successful employment of The Strategy). It protects by identifying those who are (sometimes only allegedly) attempting to use a mixture of counterstrategies to the detriment of the collective.

The human cooperative instinct is biological. It’s built into us to some degree, both in our focus on and imitation of our parents (who carry behavioral software we are adapted to copy and use and improve upon), and our fundamental ‘need’ for human contact in general. However, the game theory of life supports a minority among us who are not adapted for cooperation–who exercise, to varying degrees of effectiveness, manipulation of our cooperative instincts and learning to their own ends. When they are ineffective, they look like Charles Manson. When they are highly effective, they look like Bill Gates. Somewhere in between those extremes, is someone like Pachter who makes a great show of saying he is not tricking you or keeping any secrets (see how he reveals all the possible decisions and the reasons why those decisions might be made!), and then declares what will happen without explaining anything about how he determined that will be the case. He’s turned vague pronouncements into a side business. His primary business being the manipulation of numbers to give more sophisticated ‘proof’ of answers to those who hire him as an analyst

It may just be a case of ‘not giving it away for free’, and he has a minor amount of fame as the result of pandering to the fractured subculture of ragtag outcasts that has taken to calling itself gamer–possibly as a way play a trickster role in the larger society (who don’t give a shit about gamers who have defined themselves as an unhappy rancorous coalition of outsiders). Not every Manson-like entity is an alternative to basic humanity, for many of us, the muscle that helps us understand the social contract and lets us pick the right strategies to operate within it, isn’t up to par. While the human animal is slowly losing the imperative to be a lean, durable physical specimen, we are being challenged to operate socially at levels never before imagined by any animal (we know of).

This fascination with being a part of the island of Dr. Moreau that those-who-call-themselves-gamers have is both a strategy being employed within the larger metagames, and a (somewhat fictional) proposition about value that stands in the way of good games getting made. This subculture strategy is how Dungeon Defenders can be the cream of our Indie-scene-come-cable-television-for-game-players crop. I’m not saying Dungeon Defenders is as exploitive and mindless as cable, or that indie scenes are amazing resources full of talent just waiting to break big and enrich our lives. I’m not saying either of those things right now, but maybe I’ll say one (or both) later.

I keep playing goddamned RPGs. Mostly because they’re my version of what this guy is talking about.

Action Button took me in when I was what I believed to be a ‘community member’, and nurtured me in the tradition of criticism to become a shrieker of terrifying holy truths at the mob of onlookers until I get a great job or start a company and don’t need to shriek anymore (in the proud tradition of Tim, Erik Wolpaw, Jerry Holkins, and Jeff Green). I feel a lot of loyalty to this site. It means something to me that there’s writers who can engage me on a game that I have less than zero interest about, and entertain me. Writing and reading are the games that occupy me more than other ‘genres’. That’s what all this shit comes down to. I want to see someone brilliant make a game for me to play (by constructing the value proposition that presents a certain set of strategies), and then I want to make games for them to play (by dismembering that experience and determining why it contains good questions or experiences worth having (if any)). That’s what human interaction is. It’s the games we make with and for each other. We call it play.

We should probably categorize all behavior that isn’t physiological as play.

I’m linking all these other outlets of information. That’s a nono. It distracts you from what I’m saying, and it obscures my point. Even hardcore academics don’t read footnotes and bibliographies. Or at least, they don’t unless they’re hell bent on proving the prick they’re reading wrong and a goddamned liar. The web, as a platform, subverts all of that. Really, rather than inline links, we should put a list of required reading at the top of any review and then let you come back when you’re finished. It would all be traced back to a holy grail root site like the wikipedia entry for the history of search engines, or the dictionary for your first language. If you care. If you don’t care, you’d skip ahead, and then I guess we’re back to the environment we actually occupy (this is probably illustrative of some kind of concept). The inclusion of links inside a text, explanatory or otherwise, is a interruption: especially if there’s meaningful content. Does this stand on its own or not? Does requiring ‘explanation’ in a game (or ‘previous reading’) fall under the same restrictions. It may not (but it does (absolutely)).

As a human being, you are in play, like a ball, as soon as you are finished being born, sometime around your 3rd or 4th birthday. I want to say you continue to be in play until you go out of bounds, but that’s drivel. It’s drivel mostly because it’s a rhetorical tool to possibly sound like I’m making some insightful comment, hopefully postponing your judgment of the value of what I have to say until I cram more thoughts into your face. If you’re anything like me, you are exposed to a rhetorical tool like that, approximately 500,000 times a day in the form of headlines, metaphors, and plain words strewn about civilization like shed hair and gravel from your unpaved driveway (I’m not saying those have a common source (though I’m not ruling it out either)). Metaphors are the presentation of subgame mechanics or interpretive layers over value (e.g. 500 gold will buy you one random sword (which is equivalent to some chance to become more powerful (which is the gating system on progress through a given game’s difficulty (or get to heaven)))).

This particular piece has been started and restarted several times. Its last incarnation started with an uneven extended meditation on platform exclusivity and what it means to you and me. It vacillated wildly between trying to be readable and being an obscure set of connections between game theory, biology, intellectual property, and sex. The sex parts were distracting (but rewarding (and sexy)).

On the subject of game theory and religion, the crazy fucker quotient is reaching fever pitch in this American election year, and we’re all worried about what chain of events made a man who collected 256 conservative rupees and wrapped back to liberalism (allegedly, in terms of actual policy, these people have no incentive other than to try to more perfectly achieve the impossible to find middle-ground of our democracy). I’m going to say it’s money, and I’m going to really lean on that.

It’s Money.

Money is the social number we’ve all agreed (to continue agreeing) means something. It’s where we get all our game theory values from. It populates the rest of the chart. Is Apple making a valid gaming platform? Money. Is Steam the ideal marketplace which admits newcomers as well as big players without making consumers feel cornered in a nanny state? Money. Is Windows 8 going to take that thing they’ve been doing with their phone, combine it with touch screens and their Surface thing, and finally make that next generation TV appliance that eats the rest of your living room appliances alive, and puts Microsoft at the center of your house? Money. Moving on to another scoring system is the Revolution game. Everybody would have to move together, otherwise we stick with what works.

We’re so used to conflating value with purchasing power and exchanges of value for other value that nobody really has to explain what virtual currency is or means. Points are just bullshit. They mean nothing, unless they behave like money. If they’re part of a life cycle that involves money, then points are fuck-you-important.

Points, in the abstract, were at their heydey in the arcade era. Or just in the arcade. That’s not really an era. At any rate, if it was an era, we’re still in it. You may think arcades are dead, but drive by a sleepy seaside Oregon town (in at least one case conveniently named Seaside (for your convenience )) and you’ll see 3 restaurants, 4 bars, a couple miscellaneous light industry kinds of things, and a video arcade. Depending on where you are in america, that video arcade is a Gamestop or walmart with demo kiosks or a ‘gaming bar’ with couches, tvs, and consoles. It might be an internet cafe, theater, or a bowling alley working hard to keep up with the information blitz that drives people’s tastes toward licensable copyrightable patentable profitable models of media distribution or fungible entertainment packets, rather than shit that just takes installing some ball catchers or getting nice furniture and a liquor license. Congregation with video games present happens. It can’t be stopped.

In any case, going to an ‘arcade’ to play games is really asinine, if you think about it for 5 fucking seconds. Play games? What? What kind of games you deranged motherfucker? Going to the arcade to play games is like going to the library to read. You can read anywhere. You can certainly go to the library to pick books out, or to study, or to meet friends, or get some peace and quiet, but they do not provide the special and extraordinary conditions by which you can finally, at long last, feed your eyes. It’s also not dependent in any way on the stock of items at the library, itself. Libraries are amalgams of bookstores, lounges, internet cafes, and kinkos, that are government sponsored. In a more enlightened society, they would serve liquor and keep on-site community sponsored sex workers/daycare (to be clear, I am not saying that a sex worker engaged in sex should be responsible for taking care of your children–I’m saying that they hire people who can do both and have, and they work in shifts (like register or brazier at a McDonalds)).

Points are still a thing, but only when they’re attached to money somehow. Because without money, it’s a little too obvious that all the strategies, all the logically obvious outcomes are completely up in the air. Someone has to win, right? Games are about winning?

Unless you put out a syntax abortion like ‘you don’t need a game in order to play’ into the world, coated in mucous and begging to be put out of its misery, you don’t need to play games where somebody (anybody (or even everybody)) wins. I don’t mean you quit, either, I mean, there are no clear strategies that produce better value than others, whatsoever. No one can decide what the ‘right’ answer is, and not necessarily because there isn’t one.

Magic the Gathering was like this for about 5 minutes.

I’m circling back around here, a bit. Remember I said that platform exclusivity was the focus of the last version of this (which was also aimed at a different game; Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning), and that the crazy fucker quotient in an election year is somewhat disturbing? That was laying the groundwork for this; we comfort ourselves that the increasing derangement of our games (which, let me just redundantly point out are our entire lives outside the boring necessity shit) is ok, because it’s getting more popular and making more money. Things must. be. getting. better.

Or else.

Gaming devices like your Nook or Kindle, or your iphone are part of this pervasive social derangement, too. This derangement is best described by how completely fucked anybody who purposely seeks out or enjoys ‘RPGs’ is, in this climate of design.

Potentially, you could read that last ‘fucked’ as ‘they are fucked’ as in ‘fucked up’ or fucked as in ‘fucked over’. One is victimization and one is judgment. I don’t want you to keep reading without being sure which I mean, since it could lead you to take the wrong idea about my tone, and be unnecessarily put off; I mean both, simultaneously.

Also, I’m including myself among the fucked, here, so maybe the equality of the proposition will keep you on board.

This is the derangement of art the earliest formalized version of the least formal thing human beings do: play games. For one thing, we’re all approaching the singularity and that means we’re not only deluged with personal broadcasting stations that can send their contents over the airwaves and phone lines to every corner of the earth if we think someone might be interested, but we’re guaranteed (for some thresholds of time investment learning about software) the ability to create a kind of cockroach like almost-person to invest our ideas in, and then sit in front of them like a vanity, and play with our shadow self.

I would love to just leave that there. It’s the paragraphical equivalent of Ico or something, where you wash up on a lonely shore, run for several minutes, and then find a reward of sorts, except you aren’t really sure what any of it means. It’s like an ending for people who don’t believe that endings have to exist, or that they should mean anything, or leave someone with a particular feeling one way or the other.

But here is what I mean. Western art purports to mean something. It’s so fixated on this that, the up to the moment philosophical revolutions (pictured as a kid on a playground spinner) of fine art (post modernism), even if it sheds all kinds of concrete ideas, almost including the idea that art needs an artist to make it (accidents are valid art in this thinking), it still thinks it’s possible to be an asshole by making art that has something bad to say (I guess, technically, the asshole thing is editorializing on my part). You see? You may not be completely responsible for the art, but the art can still be incontrovertibly bad (and thank god (most art is bad (especially what is being called fine art))).

So when we be all at our arts (and shit), we playin, and now we be playin solitarily: creating art for our own consumption, and being our own critics, too. Games are presented, on the one hand, as someone’s great little stripped down ideas that you can invest with your own emotions and flourishes, and on the other, as the latest and greatest formulation (pop culture (the unduplicatable unique touch of the artists we love the most (who have the genius to find the right generic thing and duplicate it without compunction or restraint))). It goes right back to pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons. Several people gather at a table to play. They are choosing a game of words and ideas, and maybe some sort of Chess-derived shit to keep them entertained (or Yahztee derived if they aren’t hung up on solving tactical problems). Or maybe it’s part arts-and-crafts project and they want to paint soldiers and make dioramas, or wear hats and capes, stage short improv driven dramatic scenes, or whatever. That’s all in there, somewhere. Because it is a game of language, it falls back on structures already created to deal with those kinds of games. Legal structures. Religion. There is a judge (or Priest). There are legalists (or congregation). There is a law, the malleability of which is determined, ad hoc by the participants, and not by any external authority (the ‘text’).

So tell those stories, right? Roll those dice if you like dice. Use toys if you like toys. Do it all in your heads while you draw sketches if you like that, instead. You don’t need toys to have fun. You don’t even need rules, really, but some pictures, music, and friends are probably pretty key. If a local hangout (arcade, library, bar) is more about a place where people go than about any of the things you do inside it, per se, then all you’re really deciding is who you’re going to cooperate with.

If we didn’t have computers, that is.

Maybe you thought, when I said it’s like playing with a mirror-self, that I meant, if you learn to be a programmer, or something, you end up playing with your mirror self, because you wrote some rules and a simple brain to inhabit those rules and impose them on you. That’s reasonable, but that’s not it. Certainly, if books are one kind of game you can play by writing something someone else reads, then blogs have made that process cheap and easy. Writing something down for an audience, even a phantom, unseen one, is generally assumed to be social. That said, I think a pretty substantial portion of the internet has this kind of ‘you watch me, then I’ll watch you’ thing that’s one step away from just producing and consuming your own art. Deviantart, blogspot, even facebook are communities where nobody is really playing with you, you’re just putting shit out there and waiting for them to thumbs it up or down, or echo your sentiments. You’re shouting into a canyon of millions of people, and getting an echo back from the ones who have similar tastes. There’s some social spaces where this rhetoric is very powerful and real. Places like persistent online games, where extremely poorly produced derivative art is elevated to minor celebrity status. Someone takes a video of a game that they didn’t make, recording the behavior of people other than themselves (that they didn’t necessarily influence or choreograph), set it to a soundtrack they didn’t compose, and add a very minor amount of value in captions and editing, and get sick hits for it (bro).

Rap was troubling when it leaned heavily on sampling, to the point of obscuring the original sampled song’s own popularity and value (or at least, it was to the people who didn’t ‘get it’, but probably wouldn’t listen to rap in any case). Then that went by the wayside as remixes started to become this interesting public works project for discovering exactly where popculture’s G-spot was located. Now we have DJ mashups that are nothing but that part that used to happen during the last 5 to 10 seconds of a song at a place with great house music, except it extends the entire duration. But we’re in an era of game playing at this point where we don’t just sample mechanics, we mashup entire experiences. Wholesale.

And it’s killing my commitment level.

Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning (KoAR) is a game that I was enjoying, and now hate, 65+ hours in. I bought it instead of Skyrim, because I haven’t liked any of Bethesda’s Eldarscroll style games (I want to make that statement very concrete (at some point)).

KoAR is exhilarating to run through. It’s a large world but when you head for the horizon and push the sprint button to start trucking, you don’t feel like frustrated like you won’t get where you want to go before you’re bored–you feel excited. Exploring is interesting. Perception of movement speed is a real thing. In World of Warcraft, you always feel like it takes forever to get anywhere. It only really takes a couple minutes most of the time, but every step is agonizing and full of enemies you have to skirt, terrain that hates you and gets in your way. Every step in that game is taken uphill against the wind. In Super Mario Brothers, you feel like you can move at lightning speed, even though Mario hardly ever runs farther than the equivalent of a couple blocks. In fact, since he’s tiny and the turtles and pipes look so big, there’s a case to be made he doesn’t run farther than a few feet.

Put a gamecube (playing Mario Sunshine (or a Wii with Mario Galaxy)) next to a PC (playing World of Warcraft) some time and compare. Jumping aside (and yes, it’s a big aside), those characters move around the large features in their environment at similar speeds. The difference is that one pumps his legs like a gerbil running from a cat, and lives in a world where interesting things feel close and attainable (there are ways to ‘run’ that make stairs or ramps passe (you can have fun just imagining how you’d like to get somewhere)), while the other trundles like a surly kid on a school mandated fitness run, and is surrounded by places they can’t get. The mere act of finding out they can’t get there is such a drain on time and enthusiasm that even the places they can get are less exciting.

You could compare KoAR to Zelda in a similar way, saying that they’re both about entering a thousand small holes, but one is anticlimactic and a let down, while the other feels like finally getting out of the wasteland of not being in a hole. KoAR has the mechanics of secret doors and hidden caches of items, ostensibly to interest you and make exploration fun, but when you max out a treasure/trap/monster radar (‘detect hidden’) skill, the mystery is drowned in warnings (and the pleas for attention that a target rich environment presents). Even if you had to look for them without knowing, for certain, where they were, there is no visual language; completely identical wells, piles of rocks, and hollow logs have shit in them, except when they don’t. They are part of a class of ‘might have something in me’ treasure chests, that are from a very small set of valid game-graphics. Detecting which are actual treasure chests and which are bullshit is random without the skill (in the sense that you still have to run up and try). In Skryim or Fallout 3, every ‘locker’ or ‘jar’ is a locker or jar. You can look inside it, at least. Even if it is empty, there is a valid metaphor, and you know that, if you don’t want to look at a jar, it’s because you’re sick of jars right now, not because you don’t want to ‘find’ a ‘hidden’ thing. Without that kind of predictable behavior, you rely entirely on the skill (for the sake of saving your time–the only monetizable value in use). The game becomes about following where the skill points–at first, just to hidden treasure, then to visible treasure, and finally to the collectible lore items on the map that, when chapters are completed, offer permanent buffs to your character–making them the least dispensable part of the process (and providing a strong urge to max the detect hidden skill–probably first–especially since it *also* gives you more gold, with which you can often purchase better quality items than you can find while attacking enemies or finding in treasure chests). The game world feels like a simulator for growing up in an environment of domestic abuse. Things that might have treasure often don’t, and it isn’t worth trying to check on your own because of the inconsistency, but even if you see a obvious treasure chest, that’s no guarantee. A golden chest protected by magic wards and monsters is as likely to give you garbage as a log by the side of the road is likely to give you the rarest weapon upgrade.

Some of these objects have no barrier to entry, and some of them have minigames that you play. You try to pick a lock or dispel a magic barrier. Both minigames are only partly skill based, and both require a certain minimum amount of time. Because they both eventually become a pain in the ass, if we reason backwards from the end, we realize it’s better to never play them at all. It is faster and less obnoxious to tap the ‘try to do this automatically’ button, and spend the extra money on broken lock picks, or run to the healer to get rid of the ‘curse’ that your character gets when they blow up a magic chest by accident. This checks your momentum. The reward is taking the least amount of time to gather all the crap (elegantly featured in games like Pacman or even Triple Town. Soon, gathering crap, itself, becomes a waste of time and effort, and then where the fuck does the fun and excitement in discovery and exploration go?

How many games have ‘crafting’ now? KoAR has a gem, blacksmithing, and alchemy system. This could make finding ingredients exciting, and give you the thrill of harvesting (and finding things to harvest–like flowers or disarmed traps) if it were a game about that kind of thing (finding interesting ways to use resources (Bookworm, Settlers of Catan, Marvel vs Capcom)). The game knows it’s the wrong mechanic in the wrong place; you can grab these nodes while running by at full speed. Pausing to have a ‘picking’ animation would kill the feeling of fluidity and exploration (even further). When KoAR doesn’t check your momentum very much, it’s almost like Flower with monsters, elves, and demons.

But it’s precisely that it’s so busy checking your momentum that any urge to engage in crafting (even to the point of picking the damned ingredients up) is an outrage. I have no interest in decoding their half-hearted MMO-alike crafting systems. Or any other one, for that matter.

They’re feature completeness in the RPG panoply of completeness-for-the-sake-of-completeness. RPGs, at the mewling demands of their perceived market demographic, continue to add distinctions to damage, armor, block, and other actions which are vague and strange–while completely missing the purpose of having these fucking kinds of distinctions in the first place. It is a backward dogma of a deranged faith-turned-cult.

In a good game, when you set out to figure out what strategy you’re going to take, the game designers tend to make some kind of decision about how many types of utility they will present to you. Good designers see ‘fun’ as a payoff in utility. Capcom is the premier arcade cabinet filler because they assault the player with a basic form of utility with every square inch of real estate in their side scrolling beat-em-ups. Everything on screen is punchable. Sometimes there are even invisible punchable things; if you just kind of move around and keep punching, something exciting might happen. Punching something is fun because it breaks, makes noise, and gives points (points that directly relate to how much value you got from your quarters (thank god we got some value in there, somewhere (to be clear, these points are money exchanged for fun))). On top of that, everything is about evolution rewarding commitment. Keep punching something, it may leave behind something else to punch: something exciting. Punch several times in a row, and your punch will become first a different punch, and then a cool uppercut, or a crazy overhead smash. Whether it’s a meaningless bonus item worth yet more points, a piping hot roast chicken (from an oil drum), or a spinning roundhouse kick, it’s fun to keep punching and easy to commit to more punching. Every few hits something goes flying in an exciting way. Not stopping there, occasionally, something drops which, when you punch it (everything, btw, is accomplished by punching–you almost never play a Capcom game where you wonder what you have to do other than punch or shoot), changes your punches to stabs, or, in the more extreme examples, temporarily turn you into a different character (maybe a giant robot with a flamethrower). Possibly brilliantly, when these things show up, they make the payoff for using the weapon quickly really high (since being hit might make you drop it, or you may not be allowed to keep it past the next few screens).

So let’s break it down. There is one kind of damage in Capcom games. The kind where you do damage to an enemy (just saying it makes me breath out slowly in relief). It may look different. For instance they may burn or bleed or vomit or cry or cartwheel or explode. But that’s all just for you. Take it home. Keep it.

If you like burning guys in Capcom games, it’s because fire is pretty, not because guys are vulnerable to fire damage specifically or something. The good things you pick up have 2 flavors. One redeems mistakes by giving you life (effectively allowing you to be punched, meaning you can use enemies to punch your own character and get satisfaction from that (you think that’s horseshit? Think about it. How many times can Mario get hit? Once–There are lasting consequences for one hit–Mario is not about getting hit. Capcom had the idea for Burnout: Paradise with human bodies years before HD gaming let you see every slow motion wrinkle of your own avatar’s wreckage), and the other makes punching more fun. Either because you punch shiny things like gold bars and get points, or because you punch a knife, and then punch some guys with the knife, and then throw the knife which punches a guy far away in such a fashion that he bleeds red blood on the ground after taking some extra punching damage (the blood lets you know you did more damage, but is not part of a blood damage mechanic with bleeding-enchanted weapons and bleeding damage mitigation or tourniquet health items).

The knife is just another way to punch guys.

KoAR thinks you are going to be rushing through a verdant landscape, intrigued by a hundred interesting sights in the distance, and that around every corner should be some situation or scenario which excites and pleases you. Down the hill is a pretty valley with a stream, and a monster. Up the hill is a treasure chest. Behind you is a bridge into some ruins. In front of you are some wolves eating a carcass by an overturned wagon. They made a game where all of these things are real, interactive, full of impact and personality, and lead down paths of total bullshit. All those things meant to excite you are work. They’re work in a crafting system. They’re work in dialog trees with conversation monsters that need to be defeated with ‘yes I will do your quest’ or ‘Persuade: Are you sure you don’t want to just give me free gold? (45% chance)’. They’re work in a combat system that emphasizes slow ponderous combos, long enemy health bars, and unpredictable difficulty spikes.

Here’s the thing: that’s the RPG I went with, because I thought it would be better than Skyrim.

I hate the Elderscrolls series. I hate what they did to Fallout. The reason why is that it fails to execute on 2 really cool premises with about equal incompetence. The first premise is that life would be really cool if you could cast spells, or shoot monsters, or sneak around while getting away with seriously illegal shit (like murder). The second premise is that there are some aspects of real life (like looking through boxes and shelves, exploring in the woods, tracking people and animals, and collecting cool things (physically and socially)) that are fun on their own, and if you just represent that experience, in a wonderland without mosquito bites, cold streams, and broken ankles, then you’d really have something, by God.

To be clear, KoAR does all that better than any Elderscrolls game. Fable doesn’t even do it better than KoAR. What Fable does do better is everything mechanical, from its economy, to its item rules, to its legal structure (such as it is), to its fighting controls.

If not for the bizarre shit we each have buried somewhere in our imaginations, we’d all be stuck with games that play like this: you go an do a thing. And then what happens? I don’t know. I guess you go and do something else.

No no no, fucking no. That is boredom. You just described boredom.

In the Elderscrolls, when you wander around, it’s both too much like real life (where it takes a long time to get anywhere, lots of places are visible but pretty much inaccessible for the level of effort you want to spend to access them, and a lot of the landscape seems much more interesting from a distance than it actually is when you get there, with the exception of the view), and not enough like real life (where there are nearly infinite nuances to every little patch of ground and collection of junk that can make things interesting (for instance, any given scattered set of rocks might have a cool polished piece of alabaster, or something with fools gold, or a geode that you can break open)). Even for the fantastic apocalyptic settings, Elderscrolls games make strange choices about what they present to you. Nobody told them they had to stack bookshelves with ‘real’ books. They try to anyway. Instead of making them precious and interesting, they have a tendency to write a few dozen (really shitty) 2 or 3 paragraph high-fantasy pamphlets that you find in dozens of locations. The player can feel free to write out the characters, plot, and climax themself using the handful of brilliant sentences supplied as a seed (“Allow Bethesda’s talent to blossom within you.” – bullet point from powerpoint presentation on ‘how to get players to make your content better for free and think you’re actually doing them a favor’).

Games are games. Finding roast chicken in a dumpster in Final Fight is a higher quality experience than finding some bottle caps, an empty bag, a can of irradiated beans, and some imaginary drugs in Fallout 3. The reliance on your imagination is shameless. Not only for trying to imagine what a nonexistant (and non-simulated) drug experience might be like, but to give you the opportunity to steal those drugs from their ‘owner’ after breaking into their shack, and navigating a really short conversation tree that includes an offer for virtual off-screen sex. At that rate, just put a note inside the box, reading ‘picture sex while playing game to enhance experience’.

Capcom would put a note in their box that says that says ‘punch this’ (it would probably have to go on the outside). Any game worth playing needs to pick its punching and then be good at that. Not that plus conversation monsters or that plus virtual fantasy ecosystems.

These are games about introducing every form of value they can find from the last 20 years to try to appease the dictum set by the Refers-to-themselves-as-a-Gamer cult. When you get outside dogma, and look at ‘real’ games made for any audience that might like games, you see something totally different.

Axis Allies is an exceptional board game first made by Avalon Hill and published (for a while) by Milton Bradley. The game covered World War 2 starting when the United States entered the war, was superficially like Risk, and revolved around giving the player different value propositions for different levels of economy.

The idea was that, if you wanted to inject some history into something as basic as a Risk-like wargame–something a broad audience could appreciate and understand without needing to be educated severely in the realities of the global economy of the 40s, restrictions of supply in war, or just how combined arms works, you needed a way to communicate obvious strategies simply. At a basic level, the game wasn’t really about luck. It was about how you invested resources to overcome the challenges at hand. Infantry was cheap and excellent for defense. Tanks were more expensive and excellent for attack. Because of the way buying new troops worked, you could get 5 infantry for every 3 tanks the enemy bought. Without going into detail, in a fight between those 5 infantry and 3 tanks, with the tanks attacking and the infantry defending, the attacker would lose all their tanks, and the defender would still have 3 infantry at the end. Bad rolls could vary that somewhat, but it made offense tricky. For very small battles, tanks were useful. For very big battles, they were critical, but without infantry to take the hits for them, their attack advantage would be killed off too quickly, and the economic cost of that loss would be in favor of the defender. The mechanics involved were rolling a die. All units had an attack value and a defense value. There was a little placard with pictures so it wasn’t hard to keep track. There weren’t special types of infantry, infantry did not gain an advantage against tanks or visa versa. Nothing that looked like (for example) the artificial mechanics of the Age of Empires games, where a spear guy was just like a sword guy, except with the inexplicable erectile dysfunction problem when it came to other sword guys.

Avalon Hill went on to split the game into two theater versions (theater meaning the Pacific war between the Japanese, British, Australians, Chinese, and USA, and the Atlantic war between the British, Germany, USSR, and USA). One of the side effects was isolating the two conflicts, and segregating the United States into 2 pieces that were each devoted to different halves of the war, allowing the economic model to be more accurate, and the boards to be more detailed. It was a change to more accurately represent the history as it unfolded. Take note: not a sullen and cynical effort to sell you the same thing over again, not a way to turn half the war into DLC, or attempt to make something singular into a series. The game was split because it could be better and more valid by doing something which was, essentially, valid in itself; isolate two conflicts which were basically isolated. A couple mechanics were removed, a couple were added. There were only 2 new units. The most impressive addition was the artillery unit. They expanded and improved the detail of the economy on the battlefield with one simple new unit.

The mechanisms they used did not add new forms of attack or damage. They did not change the values of existing units to ‘better balance them in the new scheme’. Through a very simple mechanism artillery expanded and explained the way you could use infantry for attack as well as defense (which was historically true, but didn’t really work in the game (you bought infantry to soak up bullets and stack them like cheap cordwood to keep enemies out of your territory (making defense economically easier than attack (fundamentally putting the axis powers at a disadvantage, in a way that created weird results when it came to balancing their economies (for instance, portraying the economic power of England and nearly all of mainland Europe as being substantially similar and discouraged Germany from being as aggressive as it was historically))))). It was a simple buddy-system kind of rule; each artillery could take an infantry buddy, and while that artillery was alive, the infantry would attack as well as they defended (doubling their attack value).

At a cost for an artillery between an infantry or tank, this introduced a new financial landscape. For the price of 20 infantry, you could get 15 artillery, or 12 tanks. Between those tanks and infantry, the results were still pretty chilling. Half the infantry would survive. All the tanks would die. Tanks would match 15 artillery, though. With some artillery in your attacking force and some tanks, the advantage swung decisively in favor of offense, yet the urge to try to match your artillery numbers to your infantry numbers for a future assault could leave you economically only in a position to defend–which in the landscape of the world at the time might mean you would lose.

A very precise gradient of utility existed which replaced the former all-or-nothing offensive decisions that weakly favored defense, with a new model that generally meant that a strong economy favored offense and a weak economy favored defense. Perhaps most excitingly, the main function of tanks was as a minority supplement to larger forces of cheaper and more flexible artillery and infantry (which was more historically accurate and made the relative economies easier to model).

Fucking simple. No fundamentally new rules. Very specific interactions between already existing units. Numbers that lined up with what you already knew so that, if you played the vanilla Axis Allies, then, when you played the Western Front (or Pacific Front) version, you could get over the handful of differences and move straight to understanding what your new choices really were.

The player was urged to do things naturally, by being given a value proposition. Axis Allies is strong enough mechanically to play without dice. The only reason the dice are in there is because rolling dice is fun.

Fun. Fun like when you have detailed plastic playing pieces. Putting a battleship on the board had a quality all its own that made the piece (possibly) more important in real life (where we play games) than it was in game mechanics. That’s Capcom on a board.

That’s what you’re supposed to be making.

When I’m staring down this kind of thing, it makes me think of imgur (or 4chan, or reddit, or whatever your poisonous aggregator of choice is). There’s a community among aggregators which is both like watching religious movements unfold, and a bizarre game design primer in the making; the process of trying to get popular with anonymous commenters. Here’s how it plays.

Say you go to imgur. You see a picture of a dog. It is so fucking cute. Like, don’t even fuck with this dog. The kind of dog that gives a cat person a moment where they look inward and don’t like what they see.

Anyway, so you’re looking at this dog. Is that enough? Definitely not. There is a caption. It describes someone’s best attempt to make it ‘better’. Let’s say the dog is in a cardboard box and is happy, one attempt might be something like ‘my buddy got me a present!’. In this context, it is apparent, because of the box or the setting or something that the dog is your buddy and got you himself, because what he’s got to offer is being a dog. This should be more than enough for everyone. In fact, it’s probably a little redundant, but a happy thought with a cute picture of a dog is nothing to sneeze at; fine, right? A slice of lemon with my ice tea. Complaining about that would be the act of a madman. However, we live in a culture rapidly approaching singularity, attempting to parallel process the answer to all questions simultaneously in the hopes that two pieces of information will meet up and make the future go away. So that caption doesn’t have to live on its own. You scroll down, and there’s other captions (comments, but lets acquiesce to the request of the site that people are working to a format). Obviously, there’s just plain old ‘hey, I saw your dog and liked it’. There’s also the latest in dog memes a la ‘Come in Dogfort, have smuggled myself into human domicile’. Then there’s local social memes like ‘[people from this site] are [description]’ or ‘all this needs is a [insert commonly found other type of picture]’. Those are forms of added content. You might luck out with mediocre dog pictures if someone has the ingenuity to step in for you and pull you into a larger world of excellence by making your stupid dog picture funny, interesting, or sympathetic.

This is the only screen that matters

But there’s more. Let’s say you get past commenting on commenters, and just take comments from some other source (or even imgur, itself (fuck it (fuck everything))). You might highlight the relevant shit or crop out the irrelevant shit to purify and distill the tiny amount of living, breathing irony you intend to share. Now let’s say the picture, itself, is a screenshot of comments someone else made about some 3rd party dog; in other words, a snapshot of the process working as intended–the process is the content. Proof positive that you are not wasting your time. Thank goodness. Well, you might be mediocre at detecting good content as well as being incapable of generating any. That’s not a problem, necessarily, though, because at this point we can gamify this bitch like nobody’s business.

That picture of yours, might as well be your desktop with something circled in red to draw the audience’s attention–that’s your affordance. Good job, kid, incorporating design in your entertainment product. What else have we got going on? Well there’s your choice of framing, certainly, and you might synthesize extra memes into the work to save commentators the effort (or else use visual memes that present better in the image, itself, anyway). Troll face is a popular one, but it doesn’t matter what you pick, anything is a value add (a la Triple Town and Yeti Town). What’s left? Browser tabs. You can hide messages in Chrome’s window titles by launching google searches.

As a cultist experiencing my new religion, this is an interesting process. When I first arrived at the internet, kids humping a couch cushion or kittens attacking bubble wrap were sufficient. I soon become jaded enough to know what kinds of kitten videos are truly entertaining, vs which ones are obviously the upload of a degenerate mind. I might make my account on some aggregator site to take advantage of the information organizing tools it has to offer. For instance, my youtube account notifies me when EgoRaptor favorites some bullshit video that sucks instead of making and uploading his content, some of which I like. To avoid being inundated with his completely content-free opinion (which doesn’t thrill me) in between actual uploads of his unique content, I diversify; some gaming channels, some commentary channels. Maybe an extra weird animator who’s got a couple really upsetting My Little Pony spoofs. So they’ve ‘got’ me. I’m invested in my religion. I have an account, and now it’s super easy to participate a little. Maybe tell someone they’re an asshole or thumbs down a 12 year old’s opinion of the new Call of Duty multiplayer. You know, going to church. In some ways I feel a responsibility to help, in my own little way, to improve the aggregating experience for others. As I move around through all this crap, I want to give things a little nudge. I might even want to tell people who don’t know about it that Youtube has some good stuff on it. I’m an accidental evangelist. Hey dude, I found a youtube of a dog that keeps trying to put its paw on a laser pointer spot but has to snatch it away because there’s a cat in the room and it wants to attack the laser pointer, and they keep fighting over the dot, and anyway, now I’ve subscribed to the channel, and it’s saved my immortal soul.

Every time they corner Miyamoto, they find out that he was fucking around with some analog bullshit that inspired him to make his game about jumping or exploring or gardening or liking dogs. Everyone is floored. They’re floored, not because of the inventiveness or the professionalism, or the simplicity. They’re floored because they’re either old enough to be out of the loop so they don’t have any fucking idea of what a video game is or means and can only detect it with a needle that oscillates between ‘new fangled’ and ‘kids these days’, or they’re floored because they’re young enough that they have no idea how people go outside and have fun without instructions, sunscreen, helmets, or real time RSS feeds about GPS coordinates for where the best bugs are. Thatgamecompany has a similar process, only their experience isn’t this alien analog world-experiencing shit. It’s good old fashioned digital exploration. Flow is about navigating aggregating services and hoarding their output. Flower is about thumbsing content up and down, and leaving comments. Your petal trail accumulates to show anyone else what flowers you thumbsed up. Information propagates. Journey is about the quest for specific content. What primal digital urge awaits in their next project? I’m assuming it’s going to be about parallelism. They’ll take the anonymous other player concept and give you a means to generate patterns of some kind, and then explore where those patterns lead as part of an upvoting or downvoting thing. Your landscape will adapt based on the statistically associated content that others who created that pattern (or similar patterns). It’ll be ‘people who liked this product also bought…’ but in mesmerizing game form.

In like, 5 years, they’ll be the only metaphor for game experiences being used as a starting point.

I mean, what is Minecraft, really, except facebook that you play on a private server.

Which is what marketing assholes would really love to distill. Every time they turn your QFC coupons into a membership card, tell you to buy one and get one free, offer ‘10$ gift cards for 5$’ or give you triple word-scores on shaving cream they’re manipulating their offer to add entertainment value to something the public has become cynical about (all of this shit is way older than the concept of ‘gamifying’ (kids these days act like corporations are only now figuring out how to use superficial gaming tasks to entice people into spending money)). At a certain level, the satisfaction of buying a ‘branded’ product versus a generic is an act of entertainment carefully crafted by General Mills or Tyson to attempt to impart some added value into their retweets of chicken nuggets.

RPGs, to some extent, are about adding value, yourself, to a shitty book. Choose your own adventure is a pretty good example of the fledgling step. If you trace the wargames history of pen and paper RPGs, it was even more primal than that; fantasy wargames didn’t exist very much, usually because they had 3 flavors of pitfalls. In the first case, you might make a historically accurate period piece about medieval warfare with roughly representative figures and units–rules pulled from ‘real’ life where spears operate a certain way and horses can run at a certain speed, and bore the crap out of people who love elves and dragons. Or, you could take elves and dragons and make rules for them that are completely incompatible, because the elves love art, archery, and singing, and dragons love breathing fire and treasure, and there’s not much of an ecosystem, there, for you to simulate. Finally, you could compromise, somehow, but then you have to generate that ecosystem we just talked about to clarify the metaphors at work (since, otherwise, somebody could just put a dragon down instead of a german tank and pretend the american soldiers in the trench were elves), and by the time you’re done explaining it, you probably failed both to elucidate the structure of the game and make an entertaining story. They didn’t used to have ‘Too long; did not read’ memes, but they did have the sentiment. So Gygax decided that the best thing was to make the problem the solution; he made the imgur (or reddit or youtube) of board games. Upload your content to your friends and let them comment on it.

Once the community began to thrive, you saw all the pretenders. Tunnels and trolls was like the Zoji.com to Dungeons and Dragons’ Myspace. In the end, tools won, and games lost. Wizards of the Coast makes a version of Dungeon and Dragons which is a cool board game for people to play, and not a story or a deep set of mechanics. It’s about fun things packed together; good art, cool plastic figures, something fun you can do together in an evening. They have aggregated the best RPG-derivative content and offered you their meatspace RSS feed. It’s not your content. It’s not their content. It’s the content of a 3rd party, remixed.

That’s what this KoA:R thing is. Darksiders was too, but Darksiders was a very specific video game experience in the culture to which we’ve become accustomed. In some ways it was a missing link. KoA:R is not a good video game. Or a good story. It’s a good aggregate of entertainment experiences in one place. It has that ‘crafting’ thing some people seem to think is cool. It has that hidden item search thing that other people love. It has that combo system thing that your friend, who talks in terms of all games as though they were fighting games, loves.

It’s getting close to casino games. When the ‘game’ experience involves a button that says ‘participate’ and costs 50-60$, and then just shows you shit for 80 (goddamnit, I had to look at my save game for that. 80?! Really?! That’s wasted time (I have yet to see something truly interesting, and all the tasks I’ve been performing felt like burning wood (Single player WoW sucks (You can’t get better at aging; everybody accomplishes it at the same rate)))) hours. I’m not anywhere near done. I haven’t been this burned out on mindless bullshit since Final Fantasy 12.

Flash games on newgrounds.com provide more satisfaction because you can tell if they suck faster and it costs nothing but time to find out. In fact, being able to suck quickly, is, to a certain point, vital to the quality of a product.

RPGs can’t suck quickly anymore. They’re aren’t capable of it. They’re all, at the very least, full of characters and armor art, and levels, and gold, and crappy dialog that lasts forever. The Old Republic (*** – ABDN) review was about how nice it would be if that aggregator shell could be put in service of aggregating shit you wanted. I don’t want KoA:R. Nobody does. Nobody wants Skyrim, either. They get you to sign up for these accounts, and then you’re stuck surfing orc videos for 100 hours thumbsing up treasure chests and favoriting pretty sets of armor.

That is how I get to this Dungeon Defenders (DD) game, at long last. I can’t conceive of this game in a vacuum anymore. Maybe at one time, an MMO-like tower defense game would have been incredible. It certainly is ‘robust’. But now, I just look at it like another cult offspring of those-who-call-themselves-a-gamer. Tower defense games are about placing towers to prevent enemies from reaching an objective, either by physical obstruction or by attrition. That’s the basics. There are dozens of variations on the basic design with different kinds of enemies, various mechanics that interfere with or change their movement; even games that have level up mechanics to change the way you buy and emphasize the use of towers. There’s even ones with an action component to keep the player’s attention divided or smooth over the parts of the game that involve too much waiting. At a basic level, these are games about solving a puzzle of enemies with placements of towers.

DD is the first time I ever even contemplated repeating a solved tower defense level in the same way for hours just to try to get an advantage that would help me beat another level, as if the game part was unnecessary in comparison to the time commitment. This is what is sucking the life out of gaming on every platform, and it’s not the fault of cynical marketing whoevers, or dastardly business practices, or software piracy, or gamestop. It’s the fault of the gamer cult which falsely believes it knows what a game is, and has imposed its religious views on the rest of us.

This is exactly why I can’t see tits on network television, and I am outraged.


3 Responses to Dungeon Defenders

  1. I have to praise this essay, of course, but I also don’t think it’s as accurate as it could be. Among the many important things you wrote which needed to be said, “Is Apple making a valid gaming platform? Money.” gives the best insight into the dangerously lazy fallacies pervading so many industries today. But the real culprit is not the those-who-call-themselves-a-gamer cult or a religion of aggregating, it’s the societal problem of applying Darwinistic logic to everything.

    The way most people understand natural selection and/or “survival of the fittest” is that good things succeed and bad things fail, and therefore we can tell what’s best by measuring it in dollars. It must be evolution! And as the hoards of ignorant gamers wait for the next (inevitable and necessarily better) advance in the evolutionary process, the vested interests on top continue to dominate and strangle the competition, refining their methods and employing their cynical marketing whoevers. By refusing to let go of the idea that success is good (which is something I suppose hipsters are trying desperately not to be guilty of) they perpetuate the already unbelievable petrification of ideas in society. At some point, they believe we’ll find “THE MOST FUN THING”, through natural selection. God knows what we’ll actually end up with.

    • I read this comment, and then thought about it. Then I read it again and thought about it some more, and now that I’ve read it enough, I think I know what the problem is.

      Human cooperative and social instincts are the result of natural selection. They’re the hormetic response to plurality. I mean, from the standpoint of being an organism. We have a problem in society in as much as nobody can know the right answer to every question by examination and just outright hypothesizing right on the first try. We use experimentation to find those answers, and when you’re talking about big questions like ‘how do we run the world economy’, the best answer might mean pruning behavior that doesn’t fit in.

      The roller coaster of deregulated predatory markets and economic technology are a great example. An investment firm may not be working in the best interest of society, yet, under the influence of these firms, society has no choice but to consolidate into more protective nonprofit groups that can accomplish the same goals as the larger investors. Eventually, if these tumultuous ups and downs keep happening, the behavioral software will push people toward sensible local, self-reliant economic options whenever possible. Whether it’s locovores and growing some of your own food again, nonprofit unionizing of various for-profit entities, or hacker communities disseminating reverse engineered technology and freely available educational material.

      I think what we’ll actually end up with, while it’s hard to pin it down precisely, is player driven experiences that bring indie game design and creation through kickstarters to the specific people who wish to consume that experience. Some day, a triple A experience is going to be available in the public domain, and the management of that experience will be left to community organizers.

      And aren’t we half way there already, really. Farmville et al make mmos look sick, and I remember looking at mmos around the everquest generation and thinking ‘these are perverse tools to enslave minds’.

      But seriously, zynga games are way better than mmos. They waste less of your time and allow you to walk away for 5 seconds without courting further time-wasting disaster.

      I wish Tim would compare the tyrant of sim social design to world of warcraft. I mean, lets face it, how long does it take to walk from goldshire to stormwind? Because that amount of time matters and is a real thing. They have horses and dragons in that game that are at n, 2n, 2.5n, and 2.6n or something like that speed of movement by foot. I bet those numbers break down into terrifying realities. Also, I know that their ingame hands-free ‘taxi’ flight system is designed with ‘scenic’ routes that make travel across a continent a huge waste of time.

      It’s really a phd paper’s worth of time and effort to find all the ways that wow controls your movement and time. Some of it is fairly simple–it takes 2 months of daily play, at best possible effort, to get a particular fancy thing from a ‘faction’ in the game. The time spent doing that doesn’t preclude pursuing other factions. After a while you are conditioned to want to spend your time in game advancing your faction ranks and reaping faction rewards–and that means daily play. As long as the number of factions with rewards for play time exceeds the schedule for making a new expansion pack, they have you forever.

      Meanwhile, zynga shit *just* rips you off for your money up to your own tolerance threshold, and only for a couple minutes here and there every day. It’s pretty benign in comparison.

      I’m saying it’s all noble and continuous progress toward a brighter tomorrow. There is literally no downside.

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