Flight Papers

feminism and creativity, art, madness, and play

Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Mmm… Slash. Also, Fanfiction and Authority.

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

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A few days ago, Jonathan posted an interview with Madeline over at Bleeding Play. She’s writing an article for Push 2 about online freeform roleplay, and the interview is pretty interesting—about which more in a bit.

First, because I need very little excuse to bring it up, let’s talk about slash.


Stakes and Subtext

Sunday, July 1st, 2007

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Is not a D&D mod, though I do like those.

Let’s say we have this bit of narration:

“I’m sitting on the edge of the pier, letting my toes dangle into the water. I watch her from a distance. Her umbrella is dripping, and her eyes reflect the ocean. I pull my hood up, blinking out rainwater, and for a second, I smile. I think she sees me.”

What’s happening in this narration?

Now, suppose I tell you that the stakes are, “Does she fall in love with me?” Does that help?

Suppose I tell you the stakes are, “Do I fall in love with her?”

Suppose the stakes are, “Do I find out if she’s an informant?”

What if they’re, “Do I kill her?”

Subtext matters. Stakes inject subtext.

It’s possible, you might say, to divine subtext entirely from context, but I can think of at least one context (I’m a spy; she might be) where any of the above are good stakes.

You can argue that in a novel or film, you don’t need or really want those stakes to be made totally explicit. Subtext is, after all, subtext, and its disconnection from textually-established facts is valuable. But games aren’t novels, nor are they films. In novels, you can go back and re-read. In films, the sheer wealth of visual information and facial expression and so forth provides a high-bandwidth subtext channel. But game narration is by its nature transient and ephemeral. You can’t go back and re-hear it, and you aren’t watching shots framed by master cinematographers focusing on poignant facial expressions. So I think the ability to inject subtext is super-important, because that ability enables narration like the above. Simple, imagistic, and loaded with emotion and meaning.

What’s the value of the narration, “I touch the patch of skin where her hand meets her arm?” It’s really subtle. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it means a little, but she pulls away and the moment is lost.

Maybe it means a lot.

If we’re playing Dogs, and I Raise 20 on that narration, it means a lot, and everyone knows that. It gains weight in the fiction, because everyone involved in the fiction also saw the raise, and knows that, whoa, this is big stuff.

This is important to me, because in my fictional aesthetic? Tiny things, tiny moments, and subtlety all mean a lot.

Stateless Games and End Conditions

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

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Can you have a game without state?

I just finished playing a few hours of Taboo—we meant to play for an hour at most. Apples to Apples has a similar feel, where you just keep playing, until the game sortof peters out into everyone doing something else.

Both games do, ostensibly, keep state. But in both games the state is essentially external; at no point does what you’re doing—or even what you should be doing, from the standpoint of optimal tactics—change.

That is, perhaps, a bit interesting. And it offers a nice explanation for why we played three hours when we meant to play one: we enjoyed the game when we started, and it never changed, so why should we stop enjoying it? We’re goldfish like that.

Initially, I thought that maybe MMOs were also stateless, despite the illusion they present of keeping of an enormous amount of state. It seemed like a pleasing way to explain their “infinite treadmill” nature. There’s some truth in that, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. MMOs do retain state, and some of that state does change the player’s experience, for a time. The feature that MMOs and Taboo share is that both games have closed state graphs (state digraphs, to be specific). At no point do you reach an “end state”; you just keep playing until you decide to stop.

Is that good? Or less normatively, what does that do?

It makes for pretty anti-climactic endings, for one. None of these games offer anything like resolution. They can’t. They never end.

For party games like Taboo and A2A, ease of entrance and exit is almost a necessary sort of inducement to play. The assumption is that they take place within a larger social context—people have other things to be doing, other people at the party to see, and ultimately, the whole night is going to wind down. In that sort of space, it’s extremely helpful to have something that can be picked up and dropped very, very quickly. If a game ropes you in and takes a while, necessarily, to wind down, you might pick it up at the first party, but probably won’t at the second.

But if you’re interested in narrative? Narrative without emotional resolution is a fringe form; narrative without structural resolution might just fail to exist.

Interestingly, most role-playing games are designed to be cyclic.

Not all RPGs fit that pattern, of course. Specifically, indie games often have explicit end points, for (I think, now) basically this reason. My Life With Master and The Mountain Witch both have very explicit beginnings and endings, and play is heterogeneous across the intervening time. Dogs in the Vineyard can conceivably run for many happy sessions, but it explicitly identifies towns as single units of play.

I don’t think that makes these games good party games, necessarily (that isn’t even particularly a goal). But it does support narrative in a way that open-ended gaming doesn’t. The vast majority of traditional games are explicitly designed to run “forever! …or as long as you want to play.” Which is why, in my experience, very few recurring games conclude so much as they reach a point where people stop showing up.

I can actually imagine an open-ended game focused on nanofiction, where each turn amounts to stating a single very short story. It would be interesting, could potentially be played as a party game, and it could easily be designed to let you unfold larger narratives over multiple sessions while retaining narrative structure on the small scale. On reflection, it sounds like terrific fun, in the way that having a secret club when you were eight was fun, only now you can drink.

But that isn’t the structure of any game that I know of. Which makes me really tempted to suggest another question for game writers, in the style of the Power 5 26 30 e2: How does the game end?

In Defense of Generic Systems

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

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Reading this thread got me thinking about generic systems.

First of all, the original post is kinda fundamentally stupid. “Oh gods, we need less game systems! We used to have, like, five, and now we have, like, five million, and I can’t handle it.” It’s just utterly ignorant of the realities of the situation. Practically, the only result such a post is likely to have is that someone will say, “Yeah! If only there were a real generic system, we’d be set! Hmm… I guess I should write one!” And then your problem gets ever-so-slightly worse.

I understand the desire for generic systems, I do. Sometimes, there’s a sort of game you want to play. And you want to do it without, y’know, writing your own damn system. You want someone else to do the work of balancing, of focusing on the desirable and undesirable elements of play (and bringing out the former while minimizing the latter), of shaping play to your desired form.

Sadly, existing generic systems are, to a one, basically brain-dead in this regard.

You want a game system to focus really strongly on the acts of play. You want it to take into account what the people at the table want to do, and you want those sorts of acts to constitute your play experience. This is doubly true with generic systems, which are more toolboxes to create games than they are actual games.

That latter point is really relevant, I think, and largely ignored; most if not all generic systems are games unto themselves. And, while they might support any setting imaginable, they generally support exactly one laser-guided method of play. Which is fine, but it ultimately means that while you think GURPS can play any game imaginable, and while the advertising copy generally says as much, it’s a lie. d20 plays like d20, and whether you’re calculating the range of your plasma cannon or your crossbow, it amounts to much the same game.

What I’d like to see in a generic system is a keen awareness of the social realities of play, coupled with tools for explicitly manipulating it. Maybe each player is looking for something a bit different out of play—okay, code it in. Maybe there is a strong pre-defined plot, maybe there isn’t—code that in, too. What I want is a set of modules that I can just click together, which as a unit define a style of play, and which work together to form a game.

I don’t know of any system like that. It’s possible I’m just under-informed; it’s also possible that it would make a nice project for someone looking to write yet another generic system.

Think of it this way

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

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Behind every concept lies a web of stories.

They may be very simple. Without her, my life is less—love. This is mommy; this is daddy. Mommy does mommy things, daddy does daddy things—gender. I wish we had never met—hatred. They are simple, but they are many, and without these narratives, concepts and ideas fail to exist. That’s because even self-evident concepts are not pre-social. They do not exist in the ether, waiting for us to analyze away our worldly knowledge so that we may come to attain perfect knowledge of them. They are created things, which exist in their telling. And for ideas to survive as more than flickering thoughts, they need a narrative foundation to latch onto.

This is how the world came to be, in a moment of desire. This is why good should triumph over evil. This is why we should believe in either.

These things are the foundation of our world.

That’s why I’m interested in stories. They hook into us in a very deep level—stories are not how we learn, they are how we know.

Games are what happen when you collect enough stories that they start to define rules. Not well, necessarily, but well enough. The tales of logic and reason give us analytic philosophy; the tales of love and hate and gender tell us how to live. It may seem strange or amoral to refer to these pursuits as games, but (rest assured), it isn’t. They are activities which exist within their own space, and have their own rules—play doesn’t need to imply inauthenticity, and indeed, might well imply the opposite.

When we explicitly play a game—be it BDSM roleplay, or the other kind—we are building barriers. But those barriers give us power. They let us deal with foreign concepts, play with stories that we would not otherwise entertain. We can reject foundational narratives with comfort, knowing that we are only doing so in the course of play. And because they are communal, we let other people into a part of our mental space normally off-limits, and we invite ourselves into theirs. In the course of play, we construct new stories. They aren’t immediately foundational, but they may well become so.

And that’s why I’m interested in play.