Silence is Violence

November 1, 2010

This past weekend I’ve been able to showcase two of my newest games over at the Manhattan location of the Babycastles Arcade, one for a set of Halloween-themed games curated by my “Waffle” collaborator Arthur Ward, the other a stand-alone game in the spirit of tomorrow’s Election Day that, had it not been for some unexpected trouble with Metro-North, would’ve been there at the same time as my “Ministry of Silence” collaborator Charley Miller’s latest version of his presidential election board-game. All in all, the experience was a little more stressful than I would’ve liked– “Maskovy“, my spooky-game, worked fine, but “Debate!” had a few bugs I would’ve liked to have discovered in time. Still, as I try to do, I’m now here to deliver a kind of post-mortem on the events and the games themselves, for anyone out there who’s interested in playing and/or reading about them.

I should first say that these games, while far from perfect, represent a step-up for me in terms of creating more believable interactive conversations, as for the first time I’ve been able to put both the player and computer on the same level by having them play by the same rules. In the past, the player has had to operate under more restrictions– time-limits, losing health for wrong answers, charging up to choose the next move– that the computer has been immune to. Now, they’re equal– when the computer asks a question, it has to charge up to one, and possibly drain away all its health, etc. As such, the games are now not only more balanced, but a new element of strategy enters into the plan– it’s possible to win not just by asking enough questions to chip away the enemy’s health like attacks in an RPG, but simply by answering questions correctly and staying one step ahead, waiting for them to essentially commit verbal hara-kiri.

That aspect is especially in keeping with the first game that I showcased over at Babycastles, the spooky-game “Maskovy”, which I created specifically for the event and the public-arcade venue itself. When I learned that Arthur was going to curate an event for Halloween, I thought it would be interesting to try and create something for that specific theme, something with the same brevity and simplicity from the story “Knock”, by Frederic Brown, that later inspired Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”: 

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…

Originally, the game was going to be as simple as that– an old man in a room, answering a knock at the door, or a ringing telephone (perhaps a ringing door-bell? it’s still a possibility in the future). However, my plans took a strange turn when the news hit of all the recent student bullyings leading to kids taking their own lives– I was never targeted as severely as any of these poor souls, thankfully, but I could understand the dilemma just enough to want to express something on that matter in game-form. Obviously, however, it’d be rather distasteful to explicitly mine that material specifically for a mere quickie-Flash game (perhaps it’s suitable for a longer, larger and more genuinely thoughtful work with full resources and backing behind it), so in order to approach the idea with equal amounts of sincerity and care, I decided it’d be necessary to put a figurative mask over the subject matter. In the end, of course, that turned into something fairly literal…

“Maskovy”, among other things, is about cult mentality, about the peer pressure of conformity and trading one identity for another in a world where the only path to escape is a good ol’ fashioned quietus over the bare bodkin bed of classic gaming spikes. It’s a tentative exploration of the notion of suicide itself in a gaming form– if death and lives are such cheap concepts in most works nowadays, does it become more meaningful, more consequential if the only way to restart the whole process is to literally depend upon some kind of reincarnation? By no means is it even remotely a substantial enterprise, containing only a handful of randomly spawned rooms, two characters and a very minimalist set of graphics and conditions (it relies very much on the Cat People/Bad and the Beautiful rule of shadows = scary, or at least stylish), but it’s all there more or less by design.

While making it, I started considering “Maskovy” not quite as a traditional game but as some theater-of-the-absurd experiment in ludological form. Perhaps you could say the same thing about the current political landscape, and the game I’ve made in its spirit, “Debate!”, which is another experiment for me as it marks an attempt to actually make a conversation-game for two players, instead of one. In theory, it should be pretty simple– just take the control of the opponent-character out of the hands of the computer, and into another player’s button. Already my new level-playing-field system pretty much makes the game a 2 player event to begin with (one side just happens to be automated), so figuring out this should’ve been a piece of cake.

Guess what, though? It kinda wasn’t.

In the end, I was unable to figure out how to have the players controlled by separate buttons, and had to settle with the idea that they’d have to simply take turns pressing the same one (bad idea). And even then, the system created a fair amount of bugs that I’m still not able to fix, and can content myself only by disabling (lazy idea). What I’m left with is a game where essentially you have to control both sides of a conversation (and a political one, at that) yourself, something like playing both sides of a game of chess. In the long run it doesn’t really pan out, especially for more traditional gamers looking for externalized conflict. But in a strange way, I actually really like the way it works– who says that you necessarily have to assume agency over only one character in a game, especially during a sequence like this where you’re not even given physical demands? Assuming control over one character is a bit like first-person narration, wheras this would be more third-person– objective ludological experience, rather than subjective. Granted, it’s still really only in experimental mode right now, but sooner or later experiments do tend to reap rewards of discovery.

Anyway, I’ve also been considering continuing work on game reviews in the same form as my “Video Game Socialisme” piece, but those will come eventually. Until next time, pleasant dreamers, do at least try to remember to pull the lever in tomorrow’s elections, unless you’re working one of those new-fangled voting machines that doesn’t have one…

One Response to “Silence is Violence”

  1. [...] any posts here. My vow of ludological silence only broke a few short weeks ago, when I finished my “Film Socialisme”, “Maskovy” and “Debate!” games for Wonders in the Dark and Babycastles @ Showpaper, and at that time I had no hopes of ever [...]

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