Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Gimme the Loot

Lock thine windows, close thine doors.

I think it's high time we retire the term "loot whore." The concept is innocent enough, I suppose: A player who can't get enough of the in-game acquisition of progressively more powerful and valuable equipment. The kind of player for whom every new dungeon-crawler becomes a compulsory purchase, for whom the thrill of leveling up is secondary only to the thrill of acquiring more and better gear. The kind of player, um, hooked by click-fests like Titan Quest, Torchlight, and their forerunner Diablo. The label "loot whore" is worn by some as a badge of pride, by some as a badge of shame, by some as both, but the meaning is clear: This is a player who loves killing monsters and grabbing the shit they drop.

Of course, any time you add the word "whore" to a phrase, you open up a host of weird implications. Does a being a loot whore involve "selling yourself" in some way? Does it imply having resigned yourself to habitual abuse, addiction, or degradation? Does the game become your pimp, your provider and abuser, your drip-feed of pleasure and punishment? Or is it, like most terms invented by and for gamers, just kinda stupid?

As it happens, Titan Quest was a favorite. I loved the setting and the art, the fast pace of combat, the relentless focus on finding new and improved gear. There was something almost shamefully compelling about progressing from one area to the next, holding out hope for a matching set of rare armor. It's the same feeling that more recent titles like Borderlands and Torchlight (and, presumably, the upcoming Diablo III) try to capture. If you could just find that Archmage's Mantle, you'd gain all the bonuses of the full set. You'd be unstoppable. You could stop searching for new stuff and focus on kicking ass.

Of course, there is no stopping the search in games like Titan Quest. The search is the game. Inevitably there is a more powerful weapon, a stronger shield, a more potent rune to discover. Inventory space is limited—slotting all your crap into the allotted space even becomes a sort of puzzle mini-game in Titan Quest—so you're forced to sell or discard items as you progress; there's little room for sentimentality. That's not much of an issue, though, since whatever loose plot or quest structure exists in the game is secondary to the allure of grabbing new stuff. Only those players with inhuman levels of patience and thoroughness, the obsessive collectors and explorers, will ever feel remotely close to satisfied. If they do their job well, designers will keep you right in that sweet spot between satisfaction with your current gear and lust for shiny new gear.

Titan Quest's inventory screen, a game in itself.

I've been thinking about acquisition lately, about the idea of collecting stuff. Maybe it's just because I'm getting older more experienced or have less time, but my patience for loot-grabs has worn thin. While I like Torchlight—it's cute, it's easy to learn, it hits all the right genre notes—I just can't bring myself to finish it. I'm not invested in boosting my stats with specialized gear or delving into sidequest dungeons in search of new trinkets. None of it seems to matter.

And that's in a game that's explicitly focused on collection, where new gear actually has a tangible, if often modest, impact on gameplay. The fact that collectibles are increasingly being shoehorned into games like Alan Wake and L.A. Noire, where they clearly make no narrative or environmental sense and offer no reward aside from the Pavlovian bloop of the Achievement, has soured me on the entire endeavor of acquisition. Funny that it took collectibles as transparently silly as coffee thermoses to illuminate just how wasteful the practice of obsessing over loot can be. Is the never-ending quest for better armor in Titan Quest substantially different from the Herculean challenge of smashing every EDF crate in Red Faction: Guerrilla? Do slightly improved stats justify the hours spent? What does it say about me as a player if I think they do—or if I just enjoy mindlessly collecting stuff?

The problem with an acquisition-obsessed culture like our own is that it obscures notions of value. The ability to amass a collection of stuff is in itself perceived as a virtue, without much thought as to the meaning(s) being conveyed—either by the stuff being collected or by the act of collection itself.

Increasingly, I'm finding that what I find valuable in games is not the massive amount of stuff to collect or tasks to complete or square mileage to explore, but the ability of the experience to make me think. Vague notions of "choice," "openness," and "variety" are often touted as indicators of value; in this sense many games become digital theme parks, playgrounds crammed full of Things To Do/See/Get. That can be fun, sure. But it's probably not a sustainable design ethic in the long run.

Torchlight's inventory screen. Now with more pets!

The ultimate irony here is that even as I tire of collecting things in games, I'm not tiring of collecting games themselves. I find myself tracking price drops and weekend sales on at least three different sites. I ask friends on forums for recommendations. I sign up for email alerts from publishers and retailers. I trawl the AppStore on my iPad for the latest free time-wasters, games I'm certain I will only play once, if at all. The hunt for cheap or free new games to add to my increasingly untenable collection is often more engaging than the games themselves. I'm running out of room on my shelves, both physical and digital, yet I still feel compelled to seek out new prey. The search is the game. And I'm not sure how comfortable I am with that.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Theater Kids

Yeah, that pretty much covers it.

There's a certain detached resentment that years of playing in pit orchestras breeds. No one's bringing you roses, and the only applause you can expect is the courtesy round when the cast deigns to wave at the conductor after taking their third or fourth bows. Without the backbone of your music, your rhythm, the people prancing about on stage would look pretty ridiculous indeed. But that doesn't matter. The Theater Kids, the ones who live for the show, the ones on stage, the ones who are on stage even when they're not on stage, this is their moment. You consign yourself to being an afterthought. But still you wait breathlessly for the invite to the cast party. If anyone remembers your name.

By the time I got to college I was done playing in orchestras, but because of the interdisciplinary humanities program I was enrolled in, I still had occasion to interact with plenty of Theater Kids. They were a different species than those I encountered in high school. Very few were proto-divas in the way they were back home, where the peculiar ennui of the small-city suburbs fertilized delusions of grandeur. They were not the obnoxiously ebullient children I'd encountered for years. No, these were a different lot. They wore scarves in the summer and hung out at the coffee shops across town, not the usual haunts closer to campus where the plebeians went. They smoked cloves. They had studied art history, knew about rhetoric and post-modernism, could rattle off the names of texts by German philosophers. They had been to Europe. They loved to talk. They touched your arm when making a point. And they were free, my God, they were so free, unencumbered by the strictures of conventional morality, canon, sexuality, social interaction. They were forever new, forever wild. They were bewitching.

Of course, they were illusions.

The more I interacted with the Theater Kids the more I grew to dread being compelled to spend time with them: in the dorms, at friends' parties, at humanities events, and especially in classes. Nearly every encounter was a one-sided trip into Too Much Information territory. The number of ways in which they were able to relate, say, Edmund Spencer's poetry or Native American creation myths to their own sexual or spiritual awakenings was astounding. Especially since these revelations were always conducted in cosmically inappropriate public forums, like 8:15 AM Intro to Renaissance Lit sessions. In their every behavioral tic there was an element of performance, a calculated attempt to concentrate attention on the performer. Everything was hyperbolically "meaningful." Conversations were full of words like "aesthetics" and "deconstruct"—words strategically deployed to encourage the appearance of intelligence—while utterly devoid of questions for the other participant. Unless, of course, that other participant was an authority figure who could somehow benefit them or a fellow Theater Kid, who would make a complementary show of genuine connection and understanding. In retrospect, I shouldn't be surprised I grew apprehensive about hanging out with 19-year-olds in berets who never shut up about their "craft."

The most heartbreaking thing about Theater Kids for me was that I really wanted to like them. I wanted to surround myself with people who could help me grow, who would help me understand new perspectives, who were different from the dopes I was used to back home. But too often, there just wasn't anything there besides compulsive self-promotion. Everything was indeed "meaningful," but only inasmuch as it related to them. They were, in short, the perfect target market for social media.

Nothing has taken me back to the feeling I used to get around Theater Kids as much as three games I've played recently: Braid, Limbo, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. I really wanted to like all three, but I can't help feeling they're really just Theater Kids—long on style, short on substance.

Braid is the game I liked least, and consequently the one I've spent the least time with. Picked it up for a few bucks on a recent Steam sale, and put it away after maybe an hour. I get what it's doing, believe me. It was all the gushing essays about it that made me feel like it was a must-play to begin with. I get the point about reversing time, trying to fix your mistakes, the futility of trying to erase regret. The time-reversal mechanic is an elegant way to convey that theme. I can dig that. But perhaps it's the fact that I played it three years after it first set the world on fire, but as a game, it's just not grabbing me. I could have gotten that theme just by reading about it; in this case, the play experience has added little to my understanding or appreciation of the theme. The essays on Braid, in my view, are infinitely more interesting than the game itself, which from what I experienced is largely jumping backwards on meatballs' heads and collecting jigsaw pieces and reading cryptic poetry. The art style is pretty, no doubt, but damned if this game doesn't ooze with "look at me!" sentiment, from the purple prose of the on-screen text to the assumption that I give a crap about Young Angus Young or what assembling his jigsaw puzzle might reveal. It's as if the game is screaming "I AM MEANINGFUL!" at you. It's interesting to contrast Braid with ilomilo, since both are gorgeously-stylized brain-twisters, but evoke very different reactions.

My feelings about Limbo are a little more complex. While I wouldn't ascribe the same flamboyant egotism to Limbo as I do to Braid, I agree with Mitch Krpata that it is conspicuous in drawing attention to itself. Mitch describes the game as "smoke and mirrors," dissecting the ways its changing rules are more "artifice" than "truth." I tend to agree; while Limbo's utter lack of instruction to the player is unique in this era of hand-holding, the whole affair smacks a bit of Dragon's Lair to me. That game, you may recall, was also famous for causing frequent death. Failure is the only instructional tool at the developer's command. That gets old quickly, especially given that for a game that requires precision, Limbo's controls are awfully sluggish. But more damning to me are the game's pretensions at meaning. It wants us to ask all these heavy questions—Who is this boy and what is this nightmare world? Why are these creatures and other kids out to get him? What about all the dead children's bodies? Are we in Purgatory, as the title suggests? But in reverting to buzzsaws and electrified walkways and rising-water puzzles, Limbo steps on its own foot. The questions become secondary to just figuring out how the game is screwing with you in this next puzzle. As Mitch said, it doesn't give us more than a hint of what's really interesting, electing instead to throw a whole lot more familiar junk at us and trust that we'll confuse hints of meaning for actual meaning. If that's not a prime Theater Kid trait, I don't know what is.

But the biggest disappointment of this group for me is clearly Sworcery, which I refuse to call by its absurd full title any longer. I had read so many fascinating things from pals I respect that this was the first app I bought when I recently acquired an iPad. My Kill Screen colleague Rob Dubbin's review was so brilliantly written that I was immediately sold.

To be sure, Sworcery is pretty. The music and sound, in particular, live up to the hype. The ascending whole-step riff that plays when you lift a Sprite up to the sky? Simple, subtle, and gorgeous. The ambient sound (e.g. the rustling of bushes) is wonderfully atmospheric. Despite the pixel-art style, which I think is starting to get kinda played out, you can't fault Sworcery on presentation. It doesn't hurt that it features one of the most natural-feeling implementations of touch controls I've yet seen.

By my goodness, is there a game there?

Its creators describe Sworcery as "an unusual genre-bending effort with an emphasis on sound, music & audiovisual style that has been positioned as 'a brave experiment in Input Output Cinema.'" That, right there, is the perfect encapsulation of what makes Sworcery a Theater Kid. That description sounds really fascinating and deep at first glance, but upon closer examination reveals itself to be only somewhat comprehensible. Look, I get that they're being somewhat satirical here. I get the laid-back attitude conceit. I love the idea of experimentation, of playing with genre and expectations. The surrounding trappings are just irritating as hell.

A few elements in particular turn me off in this regard. The first is the incessant prompts to Tweet things, which I suppose is a cool guerrilla marketing technique for an indie developer and which was obviously very successful. But it also reflects the constant need for attention—the figurative "shouting into a room"—that is endemic to both the medium of Twitter and to Theater Kids. Things are being said, but that they are being said by the person who's saying them is more important than what is being said.

The other element I can't get past is the slacker-speak of the narration. Again, I get that it's a stylistic choice and through its contrast with the conventions of the fantasy adventure genre, calls attention to the experimental nature of the game. But I find it grating for that very reason. The presentation can speak for itself. You don't need to bludgeon us with hipness. Twitter gives us enough of that crap already. I close out of my play sessions feeling like an uptight nerd who's just left a gathering of cool kids who barely acknowledged him.

Sworcery feels to me like it is working really hard—and is obviously fairly successful in doing so—to concentrate attention on itself as a performance, if that makes any sense. Chapters close with a cigar-smoking narrator talking at you from a stage, with a curtain backdrop and everything. The spinning record is a constant motif, an image of musical performance. To me, Sworcery wants to be more performance art than game. That's fine; the game even explicitly warns us of that in its description of itself. But it's the peculiarly calculating nature of its execution that gives it that uncomfortable Theater Kid feeling.

Look, I don't mean to sound overly negative here. There are terrific, worthwhile elements to all three of these games, just as I'm sure many of those Theater Kids grew into terrific, worthwhile human beings (or, you know, were all along). But I've always found the things that were most meaningful in my life never made a show of being meaningful. They didn't need the applause. They just quietly earned it.