Tag: videogames

Why Dota 2 Is Navy Blue

A hallmark of depression is an ongoing attempt to fade out. That’s what it’s like for me anyway. The signal connecting me to the rest of the world sputters and struggles. Conversations turn to static, the future is a station I don’t have the right antenna for, everywhere there are blanks and so I start reciprocating and blanking myself out too.

There used to be a lot of navy blue in my wardrobe at these junctures. Not a rich, dark navy but the powdery one that comes from too many washes and wears. It’s a colour which, already faded, is rendered near-invisible by the ubiquity of denim in our clothes-scape. Wear an oversized navy sweater and jeans and you can slip out of view.

Last year was rough in terms of depression. It’s been part of my life for seventeen years and there’s an ebb and flow to it. That’s not to suggest it has any kind of tidal regularity which would be useful in predicting or dealing with it, though. Sometimes it creeps towards you, giving you time to pack up your things and move elsewhere, mentally. Sometimes it rushes in with alarming speed and threatens to wash you away.

I actually try not to wear that powdery overwashed shade of navy because I know why I do it and I’m trying to reverse cause and effect. It’s bizarrely important to me that my hoodie is now a mossy green, for example. But there are other manifestations of navy blue I hadn’t expected. Last year one of them was a videogame; Dota 2.

Playing as part of a team of five people is a social experience, simply by virtue of other people being there. There’s basic co-operation needed to fight the other team, in-game chat options and, if you play with friends, voices on the end of a Skype call. It’s very easy to sit and listen as you click around the map, to fade out but convince yourself you’ve somehow succeeded in being with other people for a while, that you’re maybe dealing with depression better this time because TEAMWORK!

It took far longer than it should have to realise what was really happening because, if I’m honest, I would still love there to be a way out of this disease. I wanted playing Dota to be the answer because I still want there to be an answer. Any answer. That feeling will probably never go away.

I realised that Dota had become my new navy blue when I realised I was no longer learning anything and hadn’t in months. I have a broad understanding of the game, where to stand, who to aim at, but it ended up stagnating. Each game was another wash and wear. Gradually my Dota playing faded to a powdery navy. Out of date, comfortable, safe, anonymous.

I’ve had to do the same thing as with my actual clothes, attempting to invert cause and effect. It’s harder to do with a mindset, though. Part of dealing with it has been following the professional eSports scene. Paying attention to newness and innovation, keeping up with patches, finding ways to play actively rather than passively.

In games, it’s easier with strangers, like how going to a party where you know no-one and can reinvent yourself is sometimes easier than an evening where you know one or two people and realise you’ve been cycling through the same old topics of conversation while picking at nachos for two hours. With friends the effort has to be redoubled because everyone forms habits, some in response to your own. Shifting all of that by a few degrees of action and aggression will take a while, I think.

There isn’t really an ending to this story because I’m hoping that it actually represents a beginning. After a while keeping particular shades of blue from my wardrobe became something I did automatically. I hope that doing the same for a videogame mindset will see it become second nature too. So far the results, or at least the differences, have been positive and I think I have a lot to gain in pursuing the idea.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist

At the beginning of Splinter Cell: Blacklist you walk along a corridor littered with dying men, your colleagues finishing them off with occasional bullet fire. The men die and the narrative strides on into a different space. But in that corridor there was a rare, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it twinge of discomfort over the actions onscreen.

I decided to ask Ubisoft Toronto game designer Maxime Béland (who worked on Blacklist as well as three of the Rainbow Six franchise) about how he approaches making a game that involves shooting representations of other human beings.

“I think the number one thing is respect,” said Béland after a taking some time to think. “We’re not giving you $5,000 more if you do a headshot and there’s blood everywhere. We didn’t go in and put blood everywhere. We’re doing it realistically. I think what’s great with our game is that it’s up to the player. When you’re playing Sam [Fisher] if you want to kill no-one you can.”

[Full interview at Wired.co.uk]

Another Booker DeWitt in another flooded church [BioShock Infinite spoilers, I guess]

One of the last things I wrote on here was from just after finishing BioShock Infinite. It was a piece about the frustration and the disconnection I had in the world of Columbia. I could see a beautiful thing and an interesting thing and a thing built around concepts I actively enjoy thinking about or exploring. It was a game which said “we made this for you”.

Then I played it.

Columbia was a closed world. Sure I could wander round and shoot men or pick up voxophones but there was no space for me to exist. It’s a concept central to the game’s story but one which repelled. Here I am, you made a game for me to play and interact with except it isn’t a game, it’s a movie crossed with a museum and that made the sections where it required sustained active input seem so hollow. Don’t get me wrong, I like the FPS side of things and I think the game actually benefits from the violence. But between the combat sections and the wandering about sections I couldn’t find a foothold through which to insert myself into proceedings and engage with the ideas.

Last night I booted it up again, determined to find something different, a way in and a way around.

It’s a decision which has been building for a while but I didn’t act on it because I was enjoying the state of anticipation. The weeks or months between the first play and this one have been marked by a peculiar sensation — that of knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I will love so much about the game this time around. Delaying that gratification has been a tease and a pleasure and I wanted to hold onto it as long as possible. But a few nights ago I needed to fact check something and since then it’s been just a matter of finding the time to hit “new game”.

Maybe this will sum up the differences between playthroughs so far:

After the lighthouse, your first experience involves a flooded church. It was astonishingly beautiful the first time round but something bothered me and that was the lack of repercussions for any of your actions. As with the rest of the game all you can really do is pick up things that are glowing and interact with people in pre-determined ways. During the first playthrough I did as my trained monkey game brain desired. I picked up everything I could find, sat through the conversations and headed towards my brutal baptism. My engagement with the space was then disrupted – where was my punishment for stealing from this religion or cult?

Obviously, one of the points of BioShock Infinite is that you’re not the first Booker to have trodden this path. The Lutece coin toss set piece hints at dozens of other Bookers all unable to effect a change. With that in mind, the only interactions the game can offer you are those which can’t actually make a difference to the story. That’s the problem with the first playthrough – before the game offers you a broader hint at the difficulties of determinism and free will it signposts trashcans for you to snuffle around in and loot to pick up. The lack of censure feels bizarre and takes hold, persisting well into the rest of the game and cultivating a disconnect which is then exacerbated through the oddly punctuated battle sequences.

In terms of the flooded church, the consequence-less theft can represent both your ultimate inability to have an impact on the flow of the story and Booker’s relationship with religion. That’s not to say I now think the execution isn’t problematic. Regardless of why it happens, diminishing the player’s agency will affect their experience of the game – it definitely affected mine.

So what of this latest Booker in this latest flooded church? He picked up one single solitary coin through force of habit and then left the rest alone. He looked at everything, listened to the voxophone about sinners in relation to a redeemer, and drank in the atmosphere. That was the extent to which I knew I could exert my own agency and so this time it counted for far more. The expectation of repercussions is because games frequently encourage an externalised view of morality. It is they and their systems which will determine how good or bad you are so you behave slightly differently. This time, in response to the previous playthrough, I’m finding the tiny points of difference (moral and otherwise) where this Booker can become my Booker. I can’t change who he is overall but I can build a bridge over which we can communicate.

BioShock Infinite: Did you kill a man without going outside the lines?

One of the comments scrawled on a friend’s book manuscript after proofreading was “Has anyone ever EXPLAINED paragraphs to you?” I remember being in his kitchen and helpfully offering the advice: “Every six lines just do a line indent and you’re sorted…”

I’m telling this anecdote because that seems roughly the same approach BioShock Infinite has to fight sequences. Every, I dunno, six minutes here are some dudes in an area for you to deal with in a shooty punchy fashion. These encounters quickly stop having meaning, they feel like road blocks in between chapters of a story.

At these points the game sneaks off like an irresponsible substitute teacher going for a cigarette break after asking you to colour something in. It doesn’t matter what colours or weapons or vapours you use or whether you do it particularly well or poorly. Did you kill a man without going outside the lines? No-one asks. All that matters is that you have something that keeps your hands busy lest anyone look in to check. Then the game comes back, claps its hands and moves on to the next bit of the story except you can’t quite remember which page because the colouring in disrupted everything.

I don’t think BioShock Infinite gave a damn what I did during those sequences. It didn’t matter how I played as long as everyone’s head fell off in the end. As a result I played how I wanted.

I get that one of the overarching themes is that it doesn’t really matter what you do because what you do is what you always have done and will always do. You are moving towards a predefined end point both in the game and the game conceit. I feel like perhaps you could make an argument that in that scenario it is appropriate that the game feels no need to react to your methodology or player agency, but it’s an intellectual exercise rather than a real answer which translates into the game experience.

I found myself not exactly bored, just completely uninspired by the combat. Shock jockey, shotgun, punch, whatever. An edge of brutality is necessary to so many of the stories BioShock Infinite seems to want to tell but it only comes through at rare moments – the baptism at the beginning, the first time I used the hook to smash someone’s face in – but the rest rapidly becomes a kind of aggressive shouty porridge. I wondered whether it was on purpose. A comment on becoming desensitised to violence or on being Booker? I can’t remember the exact phrasing but Elizabeth asks something like “Will we ever be able to wash away these sins?” – so maybe the fact they don’t feel like sins or have an emotional or personal impact is supposed to tell you that this Booker doesn’t view them as such. What sins? Why should I want to wash anything away?

Again, it feels like an argument you can make if you want to and there’s logic to it but not an emotional truth. The repeated sensation is that you’re playing across a divide. There are the bits where the game is telling you the story and where the environment and mechanics are geared towards you caring about particular things or paying attention to particular things, then there’s a confection of battles which lack that focus and care towards the player. Regardless of the intention, it felt jarring – like I kept falling through a tear in the game and out into a world where it had no gravity or pull.

The lack of investment in the player’s repeated battles manifests itself most obviously in the final sequence where you’re defending Comstock’s airship from a Vox Populi attack – if your existing play style lends itself to the battle Irrational have created then fine. If not you’ll suddenly experience a bizarre difficulty spike as vapours you completely forgot existed and the weapons you didn’t upgrade leave a gaping hole in your skill set. This fight rears its head like a remnant of an older draft where the systems made sense and fights hung together.

Obviously you can still succeed, but my point is that I don’t think the game does a good job of showing or teaching you the variety of combat or of prodding you into experimentation. As a result the end doesn’t feel like an exercise in earned skill, it’s just: bang bang whoosh aim the Songbird oh wait you can’t because Elizabeth wants to chuck pennies at you and it’s the same button and what the hell does she think you’re saving up for at this point and then ACTUALLY aim the Songbird and then more bang bang whoosh until the story comes back and takes you to the end. The closest BioShock Infinite came to caring about my gameplay was having achievements for using different kinds of weapons or attacks (I was playing the Xbox version) and if you’re relying on Xbox cheevos to spice things up then something has gone horribly wrong.

Violence is important to the game but for the moments when it creates a sense of shocking brutality, not the blanket of inculcated indifference and gore it spreads over everything.

I am sitting in a chair strumming a guitar and Elizabeth is coaxing a terrified child out from under the stairs by rolling an orange to him across the floor. It’s a moment which should stand out in my mind for its sudden gentleness. Instead I remember it so clearly because I spent the scene wondering whether I had missed my chance to shoot him in the face. To get the fight over and done with as quickly as possible. To spam vapours and bullets as quickly as possible. To slaughter this child as quickly as possible.

Then: clap, clap, children. Let’s put our colouring books away and get on with the next bit…