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Yesterday evening I went to the grocery store, and was startled to realize that I was suddenly in a totally different world.

Computer games have difficulty grabbing me these days. Many of the genres I used to enjoy as a kid have lost their appeal: point-and-click -style adventure requires patience and careful thought, but I already deal with plenty of things that require patience and careful thought in real life, so for games I want something different. 4X games mostly seem like pure numerical optimization exercises these days, and have lost that feel of discovery and sense of wonder. In general, I used to like genres like turn-based strategy or adventure that had no time constraints, but those now usually feel too slow-paced to pull me in; whereas pure action action games I’ve never been particularly good at. (I tried Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor for a bit recently, and quit after a very frustrating two hours where I attempted a simple beginning quest for about a dozen times, only to be killed by the same orc each time.)

Like the previous XCOM remake, Firaxis’s XCOM2 managed the magic of transporting me completely elsewhere, in the same way that some of my childhood classics did. I did not even properly realize how deeply I’d become immersed the game, until I went outside, and the sheer differentness of the real world and the game world startled me – somewhat similar to the shock of jumping into cold water, your body suddenly and obviously piercing through a surface that separates two different realms of existence.

A good description of my experience with the game comes, oddly enough, from Michael Vassar describing something that’s seemingly completely different. He talks about the way that two people, acting together, can achieve such a state of synchrony that they seem to meld into a single being:

In real-time domains, one rapidly assesses the difficulty of a challenge. If the difficulty seems manageable, one simply does, with no holding back, reflecting, doubting, or trying to figure out how one does. Figuring out how something is done implicitly by a neurological process which is integrated with doing. Under such circumstances, acting intuitively in real time, the question of whether an action is selfish or altruistic or both or neither never comes up, thus in such a flow state one never knows whether one is acting cooperatively, competitively, or predatorily. People with whom you are interacting […] depend on the fact that you and they are in a flow-state together. In so far as they and you become an integrated process, your actions flow from their agency as well as your own[.]

XCOM2 is not actually a real-time game: it is firmly turn-based. Yet your turns are short and intense, and the game’s overall aesthetics reinforce a feeling of rapid action and urgency. There is a sense in which it feels like the player and the game become melded together, there being a constant push-and-pull in which you act and the game responds; the game acts and you respond. A feeling of complete immersion and synchrony with your environment, with a perfect balance between the amount of time that it pays to think and the amount of time that it pays to act, so that the pace neither slows down to a crawl nor becomes one of rushed doing without understanding.

It is in some ways a scary effect: returning to the mundaneness of the real world, there was a strong sense of “it’s so sad that all of my existence can’t be spent playing games like that”, and a corresponding realization of how dangerous that sentiment was. Yet it felt very different from the archetypical addiction: there wasn’t that feel of an addict’s understanding of how ultimately dysfunctional the whole thing was, or struggling against something which you knew was harmful and of no real redeeming value. Rather, it felt like a taste of what human experience should be like, of how sublime and engaging our daily reality could be, but rarely is.

Jane McGonigal writes, in her book Reality is Broken:

Where, in the real world, is that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused, and engaged in every moment? Where is the gamer feeling of power, heroic purpose, and community? Where are the bursts of exhilarating and creative game accomplishment? Where is the heart-expanding thrill of success and team victory? While gamers may experience these pleasures occasionally in their real lives, they experience them almost constantly when they’re playing their favorite games. […]

Reality, compared to games, is broken. […]

The truth is this: in today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.

If enough good games were available, it would be easy to just get lost in games, to escape the brokeness of reality and retreat to a more perfect world. Perhaps I’m lucky in that I rarely encounter games of this caliber, that would be so much more moment-to-moment fulfilling than the real world is. Firaxis’s previous XCOM also had a similar immersive effect on me, but eventually I learned the game and it ceased to hold new surprises, and it lost its hold. Eventually the sequel will also have most of its magic worn away.

It’s likely better this way. This way it can function for me the way that art should: not as a mindless escape, but as a moment of beauty that reminds us that it’s possible to have a better world than this. As a reminder that we can work to bring the world closer to that.

McGonigal continues:

What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists? […]

Instead of providing gamers with better and more immersive alternatives to reality, I want all of us to be responsible for providing the world at large with a better and more immersive reality […] take everything game developers have learned about optimizing human experience and organizing collaborative communities and apply it to real life

We can do that.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

xuenay: (Default)
An Echo Bazaar tribute.

I am a murderer.

I did not do it willingly, but I had little choice. I must be ready to do anything it takes. My daughter's murderer has already slipped past my fingers, once.

When the next time comes, the next time when the villain is near, I must not hesitate. The opportunity may only present itself for a short while. At that time, I must be ready to do anything without hesitation. I cannot know whether I'll be ready on that crucial moment, not unless I have already done the unthinkable before.

I have murdered. I have taken a person's life. Never again may she walk in this world again, not on the streets of Fallen London, nor in the shadows of the Tomb-Colonies. And I must do this again. Many, many times, until my soul is so stained with blood that doing it again will not even give me pause.

Only then can I be prepared to do what I must. Only then can I know I am ready.

May God have mercy on my soul.

xuenay: (Default)
I wonder if there'd be a market niche for "an MMORPG for intelligent people". To be fair, I'm under the impression that Eve Online is already pretty close to that, but then it doesn't have all the stuff I'd like to see.

This started out as me thinking about how cool it would be to have well-made MMORPG of the Planescape universe. For those who aren't in the know, it's a big multiverse with a number of dimensions, called "planes". There's the Prime Material Plane, where all of the other D&D campaign settings are supposed to exist as their own planes. Then there are the Outer Planes, each dedicated to a particular D&D alignment, so there's the Lawful Neutral world of Mechanus, the clockwork world of complete order, the Lawful Neutral / Lawful Evil world of Acheron, a "plane of constant, pointless war, where identity is forever lost", the Neutral Good / Chaotic Good plane of the Beastlands, a world of idealized nature full of intelligent animals... in the middle of it all are the Outlands, a place with numerous gate towns, each of which is like a miniature version of its host plane.

And then there are the Inner Planes, harsh elemental planes that are quite dangerous for the unprepeared. I'll just quote Wikipedia on this:

The four Elemental Planes are the planes of Air, Fire, Water and Earth.

2nd edition also included the Para-Elemental and Quasi-Elemental Planes. The Para-Elemental Planes are produced where the Elemental Planes come into contact with each other: Smoke (Air and Fire), Ice (Air and Water), Ooze (Earth and Water), and Magma (Fire and Earth). The Quasi-Elemental Planes are produced where the Elemental Planes touch the Energy Planes: At the intersection of the Positive Energy Plane and the planes of Air, Earth, Fire, and Water are Lightning, Minerals, Radiance, and Steam respectively. Around the Negative Energy Planes are Vacuum, Dust, Ash, and Salt.

So I was thinking that it would absolutely awesome if there happened to be a well-made MMO that allowed you to just spend all your time exploring this rich and vast multiverse and bask in the sense of wonder. Now, Wizards of the Coast holds the rights to Planescape, and isn't likely to allow the making of a Planescape MMO, but who says one couldn't make a strongly-Planescape inspired game with no official relation?

(Note that I haven't actually played any MMORPGs, so I don't know how much of this has already been done. If someone knows of a game that already does all of this, do tell me. :) Though this is probably hopelessly ambitious for anyone to actually implement...)

It would be a fantasy setting with a huge number of different worlds, to which you could travel via various portals or other means. To create a large number of interesting, varied worlds, one would need to develop a good method for semi-randomly creating content. There have been some attempts at this, but there's probably still plenty of room for improvement [1]. One approach I was thinking about would be to first create a random environment, then run some sort of data mining / machine learning algorithm on it that could generate meaningful content. Not sure of how exactly it'd work, though.

Apparently Elder Scrolls: Oblivion did a lot of this kind of stuff, so it seems doable, though the generated game world was only about 16 square miles / 41 square kilometers in size. Not only did it have procedurally generated terrain and dynamic weather, it had NPCs that were built to have their own goals that they actively sought to complete. I was talking about this to Jasen before, and he suggested having a world like Eve Online, where there are no NPCs in any major roles and basically everything is driven by the players. He mentioned that an exception could be if there were NPCs that weren't really humanlike or understandable, and that made me think that it'd be cool if many of the planes had their own inhabitants, driven by the game AI to carry out strange tasks that no man could properly understand.

That brings me to the setting. My idea was that in the beginning, humanity was only starting to explore the multiverse, having just recently developed the spells for planar travel (or whatever). Or maybe a human city or region had been mysteriously transported to this world. In any case, in the beginning the world would start out as uncivilized and unexplored, with the developers adding new portals to be discovered once they finished the new planes. Players could push civilization forward by exploring new regions, clearing them of any dangers and setting up their own houses and cities. You'd have the opportunity to claim your own land for a house, the way people did back when there still was an uncivilized frontier: just go there and claim it for yourself. There would be no separate game areas on separate servers, just one big area for everyone.

Of course, the natives would resist. Ideally, the planes would have actual ecosystems of living beings and monsters, with none of the silly respawning stuff. Players killing monsters could actually drive a race extinct, and probably would in many regions. On the other hand, the more intelligent creatures in the world would have their own economy and a basic AI that drove them, and if humans began actually threatening them too much, they might organize raids against the new human settlements. Destroying the native economy would shatter their ability to mount counter-attacks, though there might be various incentives to assist the natives.

Establishing settlements would require various skills. In addition to combat skills, there'd be various non-combat skills for things ranging from building houses to wilderness survival. A character with wilderness survival skills might see various useful things in the environment that characters without that skill wouldn't notice. I was also thinking about having real economic incentives for players to expand: e.g. some planes would have unique metals that could be mined to make weapons that were impossible to make without those metals. Skilled enough players could take over those regions and establish mines, from which the metals could be transported to people making weapons. (I understand that Eve Online does some of this.)

One thing I'd like to have would be a realistic possibility to have fun as a solo adventurer. A lot of currently existing games basically force you to play in a group if you want to have any fun. So I was thinking that lone wolves could try to make a living by exploring uncharted planes. Doing so alone would be dangerous, but there might be some stealth mechanics that made it far more easier to avoid notice by monsters and natives if you were moving on your own and not in a group. Even if you were noticed, a lone adventurer would seem less threatening and might be just ignored.

Not all of the natives would need to be enemies, either: there could be neutral or even friendly creatures that might only be encountered when alone or in a very small group. Some of the planes might even have their own deities ruling them, and to secure access to those planes for other people, you would need to negotiate with those deities in question. Or try to kill them. Which probably wouldn't work if it's just you against a deity. But on the other hand, if you had really good skills and equipment, it might just be worth a try... and you might get a unique reward if you succeeded. On the other hand, successfully negotiating access to the plane would probably also give you some unique benefit, such as the deity's protection whenever you were in that plane.

All the possibilities...

[1] See e.g. Hans Häggström's master's thesis for a summary of some landscape generation techniques that existed in 2006.

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