A Poor Player

Faced with the insistence that games are ruining our children, one often falls back on the insistence that games are not reality, and that players can discern the difference. While this serves its political function, it has the defensive ring of dishonesty. Games are, after all, not the only things one plays. There are those things in which one is accustomed to identifying one's personhood. Yes, one can reflect on what one plays, but that, too, is playing at something. The notion that behind all this playing is an infinite capacity to not be confused is surely only a comforting game.

There being nothing to fall back on, my attitude towards all forms of play is a senseless one: What is the point of playing? Directed towards the more difficult parts of life, this melancholic question draws me into playing computer games. But I have the same question of those games, and often it seems it's only that I can't answer this question that stops me from playing a computer game forever.

I do sometimes put the question to other players of the game I'm addicted to, but they usually give answers that begin from already enjoying the game. Such is enjoyment; one does not have eyes in one's eyes. Players enthusiastic enough to haunt forums never seem to be able to explain what is compelling about playing to someone who doesn't play--or someone like me who finds the pleasures of the game inexplicable, and sometimes thinks they're not even pleasures.

In the winter (of course it was winter) of the year before last, I became addicted to Widelands. It kills an enormous amount of time, but not in the hungry way Diablo keeps you salivating for the better item, the next level, the next spell, nor the way Civilization famously makes you want to play "just one more turn." No, Widelands gives you a much looser grasp on the future. It seems rather to expand the present into a plenitude of pleasant dawdling. It's real-time, but very very slow. I left the game running while I went to get a cup of tea or put something in the oven. While I was away from the game, my little pastoral empire kept toiling away for me. There was something extremely comforting about the sense that things were happening whether I was there or not. The music, sound effects, and quaint graphics helped. Meandering folk music drifted through the air. Birds chirped. Axes bit into trees with distant thuds, and hammers struck metal with a satisfying yet unalarming pong. Nothing was threatening or exciting, and everything was productive. I was more or less happy with my idyllic domain.

But what was the point? Soon, unfortunately, it became clear that there was an object to the game: To build your economy more efficiently than the other player (an AI, in my case), and, eventually, to destroy them. Once I realized this, I became invested in building my economy well, rather than whimsically. I learned what not to do, and I learned how to do. I wanted to win. I narrowed my plans to ever more efficient chains of actions. Eventually, it seemed to me that to play well was not playful at all, but to follow a set itinerary. I may as well, I thought, be a code interpreter executing a script.

I wrote an essay on Widelands' constraints, and posted it to the their online forums. The response was "you sure have a depressing view of Widelands." I explained that I loved Widelands, but found it philosophically troubling. I couldn't understand what made it fun. I was told that "it's in the details" of each game. A cop-out. One may as well say "it's the little things in life."

Eventually, when the season for tea and pie ended, I stopped playing Widelands. These days, my addictions are Diablo II and Torchlight. Entirely different pleasures, but I have reached a similar quandary with hack-and-slash RPGs. Soon I will probably stop playing them, as they increasingly seem pointless. But then, I lied earlier: When has pointlessness ever been what stopped me?

My quandary is that eternal one: You fight monsters to get items and experience points that allow you to fight bigger, scarier monsters, to get more items and experience points. Etc. It's not just circular; it's a paradox. You want the awesomest sword ever (or whatever) to really show those monsters once and for all, but if this were to ever occur (if the monsters stopped modulating to your ability to kill them), you would become very quickly bored. On the other hand, because becoming more powerful merely gives you access to more powerful monsters, it makes no difference at all if you fight or not. The state of your relationship with the game world, with minor fluctuations, never really changes. What you want is for that little difference between your current state and your more powerful future to matter. You fight for the possession of something that is structurally impossible to get--in other words, a phallus.

Someone commented in a Diablo II review that "the item system is truly something to behold." I have to assume what was meant by that is that the item system is of such staggeringly cruel complexity that it turns players pathological. The most sadistic innovation (back in 2000) are called "sockets". Some items of equipment have anywhere from one to three sockets. Gems, jewels, and runes may be placed in the sockets, which improve the item with various magical effects. My brother and I (we've been going through the game cooperatively) were at first only mildly excited by this. Socketed items were plentiful; things to put in the sockets, scarce and not amazing. Nonetheless, occasionally we threw some chipped gems (the worst kind) onto some wands and swords. Eventually we discovered better things to put into sockets, but our standards for what constituted a good item had risen. Moreover, there appeared to be fewer socketed items falling wily-nilly from monster's corpses. Then we were given what I can only call a transmogrifier. A box into which you put items, and it turns them into other, usually better items. For instance, three chipped gems may be turned into one flawed, three of those into a complete gem, and so on. Oh dear. This, as you might imagine, gave rise to a whole scheme of obsessive hoarding. We never wanted to put any of our gems into sockets because if we waited, we might get more gems and therefore make better gems. To just use them immediately was a waste. You can't remove things from sockets. Did I mention that?

While we amassed huge collections of things to put in sockets, we noted that the shopkeepers no longer sold socketed items. We were now some ridiculous level and could equip the newest, shiniest swords and staves, but we could find no socketed versions of these now de-rigeur items. They had to be out there, somewhere, so we kept scouring the dungeons. Which yielded largely gems, runes, and jewels. Meanwhile, at any moment the even shinier equipment was bound to become available soon. So even if we were graced with a socketed version of the current weaponry, it would be a waste to actually put our precious socket-plugs into weapons that would quickly become obsolete.

No one has expressed the process of collecting all this crap better than Yahtzee Croshaw in his recent rant on Diablo III.

Ultimately, I confess I still don't get the appeal of dungeon crawlers. Seems like I could recreate the essential experience by opening Microsoft Excel, scrolling down ten thousand pages with the down cursor key, and then typing "The Most Splendid Trousers of Them All!"

Except that you would only imagine typing that; the most splendid trousers are always to be found at some point in the future, never had. Yahtzee can characterize the repetitive banality of dungeon crawlers, yet he too can't stop playing them. They "put me into a fucking hypnotic trance and leveling starts to carry this mindlessly addictive quality."

Why? I only have lame excuses. The novelty ("ooh what does that spell do?"). The vanity of watching your powers visualized on screen ("OMG look at everything explode!"). The reliability: unlike in life, there are no unexpected lulls in activity. There's always a pointless struggle waiting for you in the game. That's the best I've got--that the byzantine profusion of items and skills in Diablo II is not remarkable for the way it endlessly produces ambitions and endlessly defers fulfillment, but for the consistency with which it does so.

There is no dawdling. My place in its world, however dreary, is quite clear: there are always monsters to slay, and items to sort to slay more monsters. In other words, there is very little freedom, which is nice. There is no possibility of getting lost, of drifting, of having to choose anything except where my points go after a level-up. I'm held tight.

My brother and I also talk about how unplayably bad Diablo II is, and then continue to play it, rapidly clicking into the wee hours. One of our beefs is that this sort of game should be at least partially driven by story. That is, you ought to play it to unfold the story, which would be engaging enough that you want to know what happens next. It needn't be great literature; it just needs to incite the tiniest glimmer of curiosity. Diablo II fails to do even that. The story--dispensed in the grim, stilted monologues of quest-hawking characters--is both boring and completely unnecessary to play the game. I suppose I'm glad it isn't boring and necessary, because then I'd have to listen to all the droning on about evil and darkness, but I wish I gave enough of a shit to want to listen, and that what was said had some bearing on gameplay. As it is, we just click on the people with little exclamations over their heads (which I think is supposed to show you they have something to tell you, but really it just means "click on me to get another quest or a reward"), and skim the quest log afterwards for what we need to know.

All of this makes me nostalgic for Star Control II, whose dialogue was not only entertaining, but mattered. You had to pay attention to what was said because through interpretation (sometimes obvious, sometimes arcane) you figured out how to advance the game. Paying attention, however, was not a mind-numbing exercise, because the backstories were fairly interesting, and the writing was often hilarious. In Diablo II, by contrast, absolutely nothing is funny, and reading the backstories is a slog through a mixture of high fantasy cliches and pseudoreligious claptrap.

So it was with a kind of hope other than the yearning for a new sword that I downloaded Torchlight. I'm one of those boys who plays female characters in video games, so of course I played the Rogue--excuse me, the "Vanquisher". Combined with the fact that this genre of game seems to be an elaboration of masculinity, this put me in an odd position.

Her costume, which includes a corset and not much else, seems clearly organized by the male gaze, and predictably, unlike the two male characters, she has a smile. I found myself trying to put some clothes on her. About mid-game I found a unique armor that when equipped dressed her in leather leggings and a full-sleeved leather coat. I thought she looked handsome in it. The game designers seemed to prefer rather that she show as much skin as possible, because in all my searching I never found another suit of armor that was much more than a bra and a short skirt.

My annoyance with her revealing clothing is perhaps my internalization of a partriarchal need to control the veiling and unveiling of the female body, or in other words I wanted to protect her from other male gazes. On the other hand, this character was much more the object of my vanity than my ogling. These kinds of games are as much about getting the better sword as they are about preening once you have it. Torchlight has even built the pause button around this desire to admire yourself. When you hit it, the camera spins around your character, decked-out in all her latest gear. When I found the Leather Armor of the Gunslinger, I hit pause and thought now I'm ready to slay some monsters.

Looking at things, sorting things, using things--that's what playing Diablo and Torchlight is all about.

Your relationship to things is the central theme of Torchlight's story. Unlike Diablo, in which evil springs without cause from below, Torchlight's story is about obsessive exploitation of the earth (I mean literally underground) to find eternal life. It's about mining deeper and deeper for immortality, and becoming corrupted in the process. It is, in other words, about you, the player.

But of course your role as the player is to exorcise the specter of your real relationship to the game. Early on, one of the NPCs asks you "Are you, too, becoming obsessed with ember?" You set out to follow your obsession (ember works exactly like gems do in Diablo II, so you hoard it) and yet prove her wrong. Being a hero, you can enter into that which corrupts everyone, and undo it. Which is exactly what I want to do--the corrupter being the game. I want to purge the desire to play it from me, and to do so I must play it. To play I must believe that I can stop playing. But as soon as I want to stop, I have to play. What I hope awaits me at the end of the game, if there is one, is to be released from the game.

22 October 2012