Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Planescape Papers: Neo-liberalism and Art of Conversation

My postings have decreased at a point where my dissertation research has also been slowed, and the suggested correlation is the 1999 computer RPG, Planescape: Torment.  I'm currently working on the chapter on 1990s games, with the general theory that this is the period where "realistic graphics" became a driving force with videogames, as a result of the technological increase that made such graphics possible. Torment is the counter-case; arguably, it also strives for realism, but less through graphics*, and more through copious walls of text providing mood, background, and other bits of information. It's set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, or rather, set in Planescape, which is the multiverse containing the Dungeons & Dragons universe, so there's a pretty damn big well of information to draw from. I love Torment. (Read that in both senses of the word.) I love its plot, its characters, its world. It's one of my favorite games, and I wouldn't change it for the world. But right now, it's killing me. It's a long game to begin with, and when you're stopping every few seconds to take notes on this conversation or that description, it takes oh so much longer. And an added problem is that I'm in such a rush to get through it, I'm not doing much beyond taking notes. I haven't let myself stop and analyze very much, which is really the point of the exercise.

Well, fine. I've got a blog to populate with content; I've got two notebooks full of notes; I've got a game that's STILL only 2/3rds done. Ladies, gentlemen, assorted undead immortals, welcome to the Planescape Papers. Today's topic: neo-liberalism and the PS:T overview, after the break.

*Planescape: Torment has some beautiful graphics, actually, in terms of its background design especially, but they're largely non-interactive, and not really the main event, so to speak.

A bit of serendipity for our inaugural post. Today, I'm getting together with a group of like-minded students to talk some game studies theory. Specifically, we're looking at Baerg's essay on neo-liberalism in Neverwinter Nights 2, and Roger Travis' essay on performance in the Bioware RPG, both found in the Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens anthology. Now, Baerg's essay is not on PS:T, obviously, but I think it's useful, in the way its theory points to what makes PS:T particularly worthy of study, and reasonably unique among its contemporary peers.
Essentially, Baerg argues that computer RPG is driven by the dominant ideology of the 20th and 21st century: neo-liberalism. Essentially, neo-liberalism, according to theorist grandmaster Michel Foucault, is the idea that modern society forces the individual to become, above all, a participant in the free market, someone who, in all aspects of life, has to figure out how to best make decisions that maximize the resources available. It's in the calculations we make to find the best parking spot, it's in the decision of what cereal to get, it's in our decision to pick out a perfect birthday gift. Baerg's particularly interested in Ulrich Beck's extension of this principle, which is that each individual is not only forced into this ideology, but forced to constantly assess everything through the lenses of risk and scientific evidence--essentially, asking ourselves, what are the chances this'll come out in my favor? And asking it over and over again, ad infinitum. And those who don't think about it are considered irrational. (Although I'd say it's a calculated irrationality at times--there's a certain economic value in getting yourself perceived as a rebel.)

The connection to CRPGs is that Baerg argues that your average CRPG is one long series of neo-liberal risk managements, from choosing a character with the right set of advantages and disadvantages, to picking the right equipment, deciding quests, fighting combats, and managing a party. (Aside: I'm always mildly annoyed when someone uses without clarifying the term CRPGs rather than just digital RPGs; the difference, I think, is that the former is generally meant to exclude console RPGs, which is the equivalent of excluding JRPGs. And that's fine--there are some relevant differences, and the cultural differences in particular are difficult to parse. But if you just declare CRPGs are your topic of study without even considering the larger body of digital RPGs, you run the risk of dismissing a large genre of games--and by extension, minimizing those who play them and value them.) You choose the flame sword to fight ice monsters, you agree with Anders because you want your relationship statistic to increase, you choose to be human because the dwarf has a magic penalty, and so forth, over and over again, ad infinitum. It's essentially the argument that everything in a digital RPG comes down to numbers, and the graphics become a facade we put over top of everything to create a shiny veneer.

Now, most of the maximizing in a typical CRPG is done for combat purposes--maximizing relationships is a relatively new feature, popularized by Bioware originally as a sort of extension of the good-evil-neutral-order-chaos options that came with the Dungeons & Dragons setting. Torment has a nod towards the relationship side of things, but for a 90s RPG, the combat is minimized. I've been playing for more hours than I care to admit, but there's really been only two "combat" areas, three if you count the optional interdimensional dungeon cube I'm currently grinding through (more on that later, maybe).  Instead, the focus of the game is talking. And that fits with the goal of the game. In most RPGs, it comes down to a hero's quest for saving the world. While Torment has one of the most unique settings I've come across in a game, the goal is something much simpler: find out who you are. In Torment, you play as The Nameless One, an amnesiac immortal who is trying to uncover his own past through following up a series of leads. There's still a quest structure, but the neo-liberal aspect is somewhat subverted in that rather than trying to figure out the best way to win a fight, you're trying to figure out the next step towards gathering the information you need.And most conversations (admittedly, not all) aren't a matter of maximizing your choices to get the desired result; more generally, the game is set up so you can come back to the same person over and over again, and ask all possible questions. It's a little less immersive (whatever THAT terrible word means) than characters that always remember what you've said to them and respond accordingly, but it fits the idea that you are, first and foremost, a person searching for knowledge, not advancement.

On the other hand... just because it's talking instead of fighting doesn't mean that neo-liberalism isn't going on, and that things aren't proceeding by the numbers. In fact, it's numbers that determine exactly what conversation options are available. Whenever I play, I make sure to max out the Nameless One's intelligence and wisdom on the character creation screen, so I have access to the full range of options. I'm still trying to maximize a scarce resource--in this case, my options to interact in the game during dialog. And as a result, my options to interact in combat get limited. I haven't gone through and mapped out exactly what point values you need to access what options (because frankly, life's short enough), but I trust my own experience in the game and the accounts of others enough to believe that's the case. And as long as I'm acting as if those limitations are in place, then they are, to some extent.

The real question, in my mind, is whether it's even possible for a computer game to offer an alternative. Videogames work by a set of rules, a procedural rhetoric, an algorithmic code, a database structure--call it what you will, there's a string of ones and zeros at the core of this thing, and instructions on how to handle those. What could change the system? By focusing on story and minimizing the value placed on combat, Torment shakes up one of the fundamental aspects of the RPG. Bioware came to its own solution by splitting the combat and the talking bits into two distinct interfaces (not that they were first to do so--turn-based JRPGs have been separating town-mode and dungeon-mode for decades). Bethesda centers things on the development and progression of the PC above all else--making their games arguably the neo-liberaliest of all the neo-liberals-- and combat and dialog get suborned into that. But in the end, they all come down to maximizing toward a goal. What would the alternative be?

Well, the obvious solution is to remove the goal; games like Proteus and Dear Esther may offer something different, in that regard. But they still have the numeric basis at their core, and can still be interpreted as neo-liberal in that regard; even something as open-ended as Emily Short's Galatea system ultimately works by measuring system states and tracking Galatea's emotional values. I think the problem with Baerg's argument is that it doesn't incorporate or give appropriate credit to the aesthetic or role-playing aspects of a CRPG. For example, a measurement doesn't have to be geared towards maximization, or self-interest, per se. One of the things Planescape measures is the player's alignment--that is, whether the player tends more towards selfish acts or virtuous ones (evil/good) or towards obeying the system or rebelling against it (lawful/chaotic). The interesting thing, though, is the most part (there are admittedly exceptions), the alignment doesn't have a player-discernible result on gameplay. Thus, it becomes less about the player trying to maximize toward an advantage-gaining position, and more about just playing the character they've constructed in their mind.

That feels like enough for now.

Later Days.

No comments: