All posts by Mister Adequate

Put the cat among the AIs.

Er, or the pigeons. Anyway. What I’m going to talk about in this post is something I expect will be a common theme for me because I find it rather fascinating. That is to say, how AIs act when direct human intervention is absent or minimized.

I’m not quite sure why this is, but I am fascinated by – have always been fascinated by – watching a game do its thing with a minimum of intervention on my part. I suppose this is something that many people do enjoy, given the success of The Sims franchise, but for me it extends into almost any genre you can think of. If there are AIs, I will want to watch them do their thing without me being involved, or watch them reacting to some particularly huge event I set in motion and then retreat from the scene, like some kind of nuke-delivering playwright.

Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with nukes

Here’s the thing: I know what the computer can do to me, generally speaking. I can figure out how it works and unless I set myself particular conditions (Which I admit I usually have trouble sticking to) I can exploit the AI’s inevitable weaknesses. When it’s AI against AI, I can oftentimes see a more level playing field which is consequently quite enjoyable to watch.

Sometimes though, it goes in a stranger direction still. Take Populous: The Beginning. Now, when I play that game, I really get into it. And when I visit disasters on a rival I really like to watch how they deal with it. I very commonly storm in, wipe out everything except any critical buildings and a couple of builders, then retreat and watch them rebuild. I do the same in various other strategy and RTS games. I love watching an AI country/state/tribe/etc. put itself back together, deal with the hardship I have inflicted. Now, I’ll concede, to some extent there is a streak of vicious sadism here. I flat out enjoy knowing that their puny civilization exists at my indulgence. But still, I enjoy watching it work as a system, as an ‘intelligence’ of whatever sort as well as a group of little computer people, a simulated society (However crude these simulations may be at this point notwithstanding).

With broader applications I think systems like this can be very powerful for immersion and enjoyment in games. Though I think GTAIV was a somewhat flawed game, the way it drew you into the world – in large part reliant on building a convincing city to inhabit – was quite astounding and unmatched. I guess what it boils down to is: Watching stuff happen without player involvement can be a critical thing in immersing the player. I’m eagerly awaiting the day when a game comes out where you are just one actor among many. Not in the MMO sense so much as… imagine Dynasty Warriors. Now imagine you’re a regular soldier on the battlefield, or at least the other generals and such run around as actively as you do. Conventional game design wisdom places the player as the primary actor, but also makes the player’s character the primary actor in-universe, and often enough the only one who has agency of any meaningful sort. I don’t agree entirely with this wisdom – I think being part of a larger system could not only serve as a strong method of immersion, but would also make the things the player does control that much more tangible and meaningful.

The trouble with reviews

Right then, now that we’ve warmed up let’s launch straight into the pretentious overestimation of my own abilities and talk about videogame reviews and analyses, shall we?

There’s plenty to say about the business of reviews, but something I’ve been thinking about lately is how shallow they are. I don’t mean this in the most critical sense per se, but rather that they are oriented towards only the typical gameplay issues, graphics, that sort of thing. Rarely do they delve into the more complex things such as tracing a lineage of a genre and understanding the influences of things, or really picking apart what a game is saying, except in the examples where it cannot be avoided.

This is not difficult to understand. At the cynical end, it’s because reviews are about getting sales for the reviewing body (Or in this day and age, online advertising revenue) and keeping publishers happy. I think this is a factor but it does seem rather overstated. At the more generous end of the scale, it’s because reviewers are simply talking about whether a game is worth your money and time, which is a perfectly reasonable stance to take, and pursuing this concept means that criticism isn’t fair because different kinds of analyses are not within the reviewer’s mandate.

Are these things contradictory, though? Can you provide a review of a game as fun and at the same time consider its place within gaming, and impartially assess what the game is doing in a more abstract sense? After all, if we are thinking about games as a form of creative expression beyond simple entertainment, or at least with the potential to be, surely we need to investigate the bad and the mediocre with as much depth and critical thought as the greats? For my own part I don’t think these are contradictory goals. I do however think they diverge somewhat, and to expect a review to take both angles is to ask a reviewer to cover a very broad subject. In terms of games themselves, not everything has to try to be Casablanca. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a dumb shooter which exists solely for ridiculous fun; despite this, there are plenty of efforts at making the things more emotionally engaging, more narrative-oriented, &c. And some games are starting to make use of their unique possibilities to make points that cannot be made in other mediums (BioShock springs to mind here).

Games also present a relatively unique problem for this kind of thought. Unlike other mediums, which see very occasional shifts in their presentation and, with the exception of sound for movies, don’t generally endure particularly revolutionary advancements, gaming (like computing as a whole) is part of a very rapidly advancing field in purely technical terms. We’ve all seen it on consoles; games towards the end of the console’s life are much more impressive than those at the beginning. But then the next generation comes along and we’re so worked up (understandably so) over what the new tech can do that we don’t play such close attention to other factors. The new tech opens up new possibilities, of course. You simply couldn’t do Dead Rising on a pre-current tech and have it do the concept justice. I do suspect that it serves as a distraction both on the part of designers and on the part of those who think about games.

So there seems to be a dearth of the more analytical review, or perhaps essay, outside of a few select places. What I’m thinking of is really more an analysis of what a given game or series or genre is, how it has evolved, where it got its ideas from, that sort of thing. On there narrative side of things there are obvious parallels to other mediums; you can find more than a few things discussing what The Road means and symbolizes and so on. And games have plenty of scope for things like that; consider how much mileage you’d get out of thinking about the messages of the Metal Gear Solid series. But what is there about the clever use of things like game mechanics, outside of simply noting that there is a clever use of game mechanics?

I should say, I know there are people out there talking about that stuff, and I don’t want to diminish what they are saying by acting like it doesn’t exist. It absolutely does and is very much worth finding and reading. Nonetheless it seems to be quite plain that there is a lack of a coherent body of thought on game criticism, in comparison to the thoughts on film or literature. And I think that ultimately, this harms the whole medium. As entertainment, games have things figured out pretty well. As vessels for communication, they’re still falling rather short. Games are expensive to make, especially compared to a lone alcoholic takking out The Old Man and the Sea on a typewriter. It is understandable and forgivable that many are made with profit uppermost in mind. Nonetheless many of us in the gaming sphere are all too ready to dismiss things as “just games” – which they might be in some contexts, but it makes it hard for them to develop into anything more if we don’t credit them as something more and start thinking about how to evolve them.

Hopefully as time passes this will change. The best way to ensure change is, of course, to bring it about.

Delicious brains!

Something else you’ll come to learn about me is that I love zombies. Not like that, I mean, I guess if she was fresh and tied up and all, but I’m on a tangent. As a concept, as a threat, as a source of drama, I love zombies.

I have traced this to a gift I got as a kid. A friend of my grandma’s apparently thought that a book which detailed in exquisite, grotesque detail pretty much every flesh eating zombie movie to date would be an excellent gift for a seven year old child. I spent fifteen years terrified of zombies to the point where a movie would give me nightmares for a week.

I’m not as bad now, but I still have an amazing fascination with them. Something about them just appeals to me; how they are relentless, numberless, and tireless. The thing is, zombies have been done well in movies, they’ve been done well in books, but despite being a very common foe these days, they have very rarely been done well in games.

Partly this is because what we expect, or are presumed to expect, as gamers. Despite the “survival horror” moniker, survival is not all it is cracked up to be. Carry health items, conserve ammo, dodge zombies/ghosts/demons/whatever. Nothing about food, clean water, secure shelter, and so forth. Now some games go completely to the other end of the scale and make zombies fodder for hilarious slaughter, like Dead Rising. That’s quite fine with me, I love that sort of thing. I would prefer that ones at the survival, rather than action, end of the spectrum made a lot more effort to simulate survival proper.

More broadly the ‘survival’ genre is not exactly overflowing. There’s the Disaster Report series and… nothing else really comes to mind. Fort Zombie could have been something special but ended up being close to unplayable. Dead Island has the benefit of a lack of guns, but from what early reporting I hear, it is still conclusively action-oriented. I have no trouble with action, even as part of the survival end of the genre, but it should be short, dangerous, and shocking, I feel. Two of the current games I feel best do zombies are Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, and Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without A Pulse. The former of these because although many of the survival aspects are absent, and although the undead are fast (which is a huge faux pas in my elitist eyes), this game is one of the few to truly make the zombie apocalypse feel horrifying and dangerous. I don’t stand around fighting zombies in UD: I get done what I have to get done and then get the heck outta Dodge. When I see a dozen of the things come tearing over the crest of a hill at me, even though I’m on horseback with plentiful ammo and full Deadeye, I feel a shot of terror. It’s huge effective.

Stubbs the Zombie is a different kettle of fish altogether. You are a zombie, the eponymous Stubbs, and though your own abilities go rather beyond those of the typical undead (Using your head as a bowling ball and lobbing your liver as an explosive to name but two), the zombies you create are actually very faithful to what one thinks of as a zombie and, more than this, they act with uninfected AI characters very well. It is deeply fun and satisfying to infect a few people and watch them reanimate and spread amongst the populace.

Hopefully Dead State, though a tactical RPG, will be able to capture some many of the necessary elements. (To any who doubt how tense and downright terrifying turn-based games can be, go and dig up a copy of X-Com, fight a terror mission against Chrysalids, and you’ll reconsider your position.) From what they say they are giving due consideration to things like the need for supplies, the difficulty in trusting other survivors, and so forth. Even so I’m still holding out for a true zombie game in a GTA San Andreas style setting, which a heavy emphasis on survival, hiding, and cowering like a baby.


Some of you may be familiar with QWOP, an utterly ridiculous game where you are more likely to shuffle over the finish line on your knees rather than run.

Well, they’ve put out a new game now – GIRP. It’s as ridiculous, but a bit more playable than QWOP was on account of things actually being visible in terms of what should be pressed.

In the words of Father Jack Hackett… FECKIN’ BIRDS AGAIN! I’ve not finished it yet but I’m highly compelled by it. I recommend you go give it a try! Once your brain figures out how it works you might end up doing some fun crazy things. I kicked the bird up the arse.

Until it is naught but glass

Yesterday Pike and I finished a fairly long game of Civilization IV, which culminated in a nuclear war with Charlemagne, who turned out to have nukes of his own. Which was a surprise. The whole point of a doomsday machine is lost… if you keep it a secret VHY DIDN’T YOU TELL THE VORLD, EH?

Now, something you should know about me: If a game has nukes, I will acquire them. It does not really matter how cost-effective it is, I just need my massive explosives and fallout. It is delicious. As a consequence for this blog, I’m liable to write about them a lot. Nuclear weapons fascinate me as both weapons and political/strategic influences, and the setting of a nuclear apocalypse has its own dread fascination.

However, games seem to have a really hard time doing nukes. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. After all, most people who aren’t Professor Gray have trouble really wrapping their heads around what nukes are and how they function in the broader, geopolitical sense. And we’ve never had a nuclear war for reals so we can’t truly say what the aftereffects would be. For individuals, of course, it would be pretty dire. For the states we are in control of in a game of Civ, it’s another matter. The prospect of survival, recovery, and ultimate triumph is one which an in-game state actor will keep in mind until it is wiped out utterly. (For more on why we get into the mindset of a state, have a read of Jonathan McCalmont’s article about why we act like psychopaths in strategy games.) However, games have a very hard time modelling this concept as distinct from other warfare. Yes, nukes are powerful in a game like Civ, but they are only powerful. They will do more damage than a bomber squadron, but not more than an army that sweeps through and razes everything. Their fallout is unfortunate but ultimately fairly trivial. The long-term side effect of ‘global warming’, which really only means that the world gradually turns to desert, is a more potent one but is no different from the result of excess industrial pollution.

This is understandable for another reason. If a game is not specifically about nuclear war, implementing them ‘properly’ (By which I mean making them more than just more powerful explosives) is liable to be a fairly time and resource intensive process. On top of that there are some general issues with how strategy games, especially 4x ones, are forced to function in order to be playable. If we suppose a full-scale nuclear exchange that wipes out several countries, the entities that emerge from the ruins are liable to be both numerous and highly distinct according to their local circumstances. A good example of how this might work can be found at the 1983 Doomsday Alternate History wiki. Just take a quick look at the number and diversity of entities here. Some, such as the “California Republic” are not too hard to imagine. Others, however, face either the problem that they are not large enough to register as independent entities in a game like Civ, or they are otherwise things which could only be foreseen by a deliberate and ongoing desire to make the game a post-nuclear-war simulator.

Some games come a bit closer, perhaps. In Hearts of Iron 2, when you get hit with a nuke it blows the target province sky high, needing years to rebuild it. It also increases the target country’s dissent, which has a whole host of negative effects; reduced industrial efficiency, reduced fighting ability on the part of your military, and at higher levels, the risk that provinces will be overtaken by rebels who can end up setting themselves up as an independent country. This still hinges on prearranged states, but watching a country like the US or USSR collapse as a bunch of countries declare independence is a much more enjoyable thing, to me, than the simpler example which Civ provides.

So the paradox that presents itself is thus: A game which focuses entirely on nuclear conflict itself, such as the excellent DEFCON, can be a much better model of what nukes do in the short-term than other games. On the other hand, you really need a much more sweeping vista capable of both grandness and minutiae in order to simulate the longer-term effects of a nuclear war. The 4X genre might be more suited to this, but they typically have a much longer timespan to cover, starting at the dawn of humanity. With nukes (Or equivalent weapons) only coming along towards the end of the game, it is understandable that a whole simulation of them and their effects cannot be implemented. The resources simply don’t exist.

I’m not sure we are going to see a game which does this ‘right’ for a long time. However, there may be mileage in a much small-scale strategy game, set in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war and which puts you in command of a single, tiny survivor community. Rebuild the great state of South Dakota! Make Wales a mighty country! Throughout all this we have to remember that what constitutes victory in a game is often a very strange thing. Not least because the whole thing is about victory. Real countries do not reach an end game, there is always a tomorrow when the people you upset yesterday are still around and have to be dealt with. In games there is a definite, achievable end. I’ll refer you back to Jonathan McCalmont’s article for a proper look at exactly what effects this disparity can have but suffice it to say it makes things pretty weird sometimes. I was willing to sacrifice horrendous numbers of lives and cause the eventual starvation of over sixty million people in my own empire quite apart from the war proper, for victory over Charlemagne. The world which was left behind was not one a sane person would want to inhabit, it was a radioactive desert which could barely support twenty five million people (From an estimated peak of well over double that). But the little box popped up saying we won, and so we did. None of the rest of it mattered. There was no fallout – if you can forgive the pun – from the nuclear exchange or the brutal, entirely unnecessary, continued nuclear devastation which we rained down upon the hapless citizens of Prague and Aachen and what have you. Yes, we lost ‘points’ due to a declining population, but we weren’t playing for points.

So I do think that a more comprehensive nuclear war and consequences system within the context of a larger game could be not only enjoyable, but powerful. After a thousand turns a nuclear war breaks out and it truly undoes all your work. Half your cities disappear entirely, the other half rebel, you can barely keep the capital under control. A new fog of war descends across the world, tech is lost, and the geographic effects are more detailed than simply turning to desert. But the nukes would have to be a fundamental part of the game itself, not merely a particularly powerful, expensive weapon you get towards the end. It’s fair that this devotion is not accorded to them, nevertheless I hope one day someone will decide to make the game I am eager to play.

Intro post: Mister Adequate

So I sit here mulling over where constitutes a good introductory post. Many of you already know Pike and enjoy her writings on many things, but this “friend” she speaks of is a rather more nebulous proposition. But maybe I’m overthinking it. After all, how many people will be hooked by this compared to how many will come across actual blog posts that they find interesting (Or, alternatively, so completely deranged that they can’t help but read more)? Nevertheless it’s better to make a good impression here than not. So. Yes. An introductory post. I suppose it would be germane to talk about my gaming past and preferences? This seems like a sensible line of discussion.

I don’t remember what the first game I played was. I don’t recall ever not playing games, and I can’t tell you the first one any more than I can tell you what my first solid food was. I’ve been gaming my whole life, now a quarter of a century, and I’m yet to grow bored or disaffected with them. It is by far my preferred use of time, and if I’m not playing games I’m usually reading about or talking about them – although I’ll probably still have something turn-based running somewhere or a flash game or the like. I don’t like not having a game of some sort going on.

I’ve owned a fairly wide array of systems, beginning with the Amstrad CPC and continuing until the modern day. I have an especial fondness for the PlayStation, which I played many many games on. In fact, I played more PlayStation games than I didn’t! I also have a very soft spot for the Dreamcast. Currently I am mostly a PC gamer, not out of any serious choice but because that is where the games I currently like tend to be found.

I have a great fondness for strategy and management genres. I don’t avoid any particular genres, but I do have my preferences, so you can probably expect to see a bulk of my posts oriented towards them. What I have a real interest in is the systems that games create. How the AI interacts with other AIs and with the player, how it reacts when you put a cat among the pigeons, and so on and so forth. You’ll see quite a bit about that subject as time goes on I would wager.

As for the blogging side of things, I’ve never really done it before outside of a dusty old LJ, so I am essentially a neophyte. However, my good friend Pike does know what she is doing and I am following her lead. I can only hope to do her justice in sharing this platform with her. As a final note, I ask that you forgive my profligate overuse of semi-colons; they are such beautiful, overlooked, and misunderstood pieces of grammar and I cannot help but insert them at every available opportunity.