Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Planescape Papers: Crossing the Rubikon, Pt 2: Satire and the Evil Wizard

Right--so the schedule of this series fell off the rails a little bit. What happened? Marking research papers happened. On the bright side, the students delivered a lot of pleasant surprises. It's always a risk to allow students the option to write about "anything," but if you work with them on narrowing the topic, sometimes you can get some real gems. Unsurprisingly, people tend to put a little more effort into papers where they feel they've got some expertise. Ask a health sciences student for a  research essay on Shakespeare, and they'll feel out of their league; let them do an essay on Alzheimer's, and you'll get something better.

But that's besides the point. Today: we enter the Rubikon, and discuss the nature of satire in videogames.

Last time, I talked up to the point where the Modrons helpfully unlock the action figure I've been carrying, and, through trial and error, I can use it to open a portal. The portal takes me and my party to the Rubikon, or rather, its foyer, where another Modron tells me where I am: the Rubikon, a dungeon simulator. It's vague on details, but there's a sense something has gone wrong. The Rubikon in general isn't actually a cube, as the name suggests, but a square. Or a square grid, really. When I enter, the difficulty is on easy, so it's a relatively small grid. Each room has either an exit or a blocked door at each of its corners. And it randomly spawns 1 to 3 "Low Threat Constructs."  Every time I enter a room with one for the first time, I engage in dialogue with it. One, for example, says "grr." If ask why grr, it explains: "Grr is a sound indicative of a threat." Another tells me to die in the name of the Evil Wizard, then admits that the wizard doesn't exist unless the Rubikon's difficulty is set to hard. And they drop items, like A Clue! and A Magic Item! and A Pouch of Coins!--all with the exclamation marks. Every room looks identical, save the placement of doors and the presence of the easily-thrashed Low Threat Constructs, so the biggest problem at this stage is getting lost. The easiest solution to that is to meticulously map out the area, as this is also one of the few areas of the game without an automap feature.

All of these trappings suggest to me that we're in the middle of a light satirical jab on the typical CRPG. With Torment's focus on talking and exploring over fighting, this is the most combat-heavy area in the game up until this point, and, depending on what configuration of squares gets randomly generated and how lost you get, the most combat-heavy area in the game period. It's a tedious slog, made more tedious because every time you enter a room, you can't just fight the constructs--you have to converse with them, and reinforce the inane nature of their conversations. And while they occasionally drop useful things, it will usually be more Goodies!. The message seems to be "aren't you glad the whole game isn't like this?".

If you wander around long enough, eventually you'll find a room full of other Modrons. They're in various states of confusion and decay, slowly losing their group mind and becoming individuals--deranged individuals, at that. One of them relates what's happened: superiors from Mechanus, their home dimension, wanted to find out what inspires dungeon crawling. So they created a space in Limbo to make a dungeon, the Rubikon. Now, the thing about Limbo is that anything you believe in in a sufficiently powerful manner becomes real. So making the dungeon was easy. The problem was that the Rubikon was created by beings dedicated to order, and the Limbo is a place of chaos, so one corrupted the other, and their direct superior was eliminated in an accident caused by the decay. So the corruption killed the director, and only the director can remove the corruption by resetting the dungeon. Thus, I volunteer to be the director, and reset the dungeon. At this point, I can leave and never come back. Or.... I can reset the dungeon to hard, and wander back in.

At this point, the chaos vs. order stuff fits in nicely with Torment's larger themes, and it fits with the meta-nature of a CRPG dungeon. Yes, it's chaotic, because it's filled with monsters, but it's also orderly, because it was designed. Wandering back in adds a new level of mess, though. First, the grid is much larger. On easy, it's 4x4. On hard, it's 8x8. And rather than the clankpot Low Threat Constructs, the area is now populated by random encounters with the High Threat Construct, a big thing of metal and armor. Again, entering every room starts up a conversation, although now the creatures are brimming with confidence and emphasizing my upcoming death. And they have the power to back that up. So the pattern now is that I fight three or four rooms of HTCs, then run back to the foyer, rest up, and do the same thing over again. It's even more of a slog than before, except instead of being tedious, it's now very difficult as well.

Eventually, the enduring player discovers two special rooms in the maze. First, one that contains Nodrom, a modron so divorced from the others at this point that it's now an individual. It'll join you. More on Nodrom another time. And there's the Evil Wizard. He--and I think the creation identifies as he--has a different version of Rubikon's troubles. He was created as part of the simulation, but became sentient. As a result, he saw his presence in the maze as a sort of forced slavery. When the director refused to free him, or let him go free, he incinerated the director. He tried to make his escape, but the cube collapsed in on itself, stuck that way until I reset it to hard. If I question our need to fight, he'll reply that he must destroy me in order to become the new director and escape the maze. And if I say I'll just let him go, he says he can't take that risk--as long as the director is alive, someone has an intolerable amount of power of him. His only choice is to defeat me, and storm the remaining Modrons. If I counter that some will die in the attack, he argues they're already as good as dead. They were born as parts in a machine, and they're so corrupted at this point that those in Mechanus would destroy them and start over if they returned. We fight. I lose badly because this is an actually tactical fight rather than the smash-and-run I usually do in the game, and I decide to come back after I've gotten more experience. He ain't going anywhere.

The EW stands as a nice contrast to the rest of the dungeon. Where it's a boring slog with nothing but repeated conversations to amuse you (and later infuriate you), he's a shade of grey. He stands in your way not because he's some abstract force of evil, as game villains often boil down to, but because he's selfish, refusing to acknowledge any perspective on his situation but his own. It's also a defeat of the game's chief mechanic, in that talking to him doesn't change anything* (not quite true--it changes something for Nordom if the EW admits that he killed the director, but again, more on that later)--there's no getting out of this situation by taking clever dialogue options. It always comes down to you vs him. And even if you think of him as a shade of grey, there's more black than white there because at the end of the day, you *do* have to fight him, just as if you were in a typical dungeon crawler. He's very reminiscent of the Moriarty holodeck character on Star Trek: Next Generation, really.

I don't think there's a question that there's satire going on in Rubikon, if for no other reason than, if you define satire sufficiently broad enough, everything's satire ("Satire: The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices." And everybody's really a stupid sinner, so everything's satire. See? Satire.) The question is whether it's effective satire, and what effective satire means for games. There's a lot of high profile games that appear to be making a satirical point at the moment, such as Far Cry 3 and Bioshock: Infinity. I think you can trace a trend there to the original Bioshock, which many read as an indictment of FPS mechanics. The criticism often levelled against these particular satirical attempts is that they're not very good satires, because the nature of the game's mechanics don't allow any alternatives. That is, Bioshock may condemn FPS mechanics where you just shoot what your objectives tell you to without asking questions. But it doesn't really give any other option. Bioshock may be satire, the argument goes, but it's not very good because it doesn't suggest a way to get around it.

To resort to Ian Bogost's procedural rhetoric, the rhetoric that's unique to a game is the way it forces players to figure out its point through the mechanics of playing the game. An effective satire in game terms, then, would be the game that has you realize the satire just through playing it. And games like September 12th, Bogost's own Cow Clicker, and so forth are reasonably clear examples of these forms. Under that broad definition, I think satirical games don't necessarily have to provide an "out"--they just need to draw players into their processes in a way that makes them realize those processes. And that's trickier than it sounds. It's very easy to just lay back and give in to a game's flow.  To get players to really pay attention you have to do something that "breaks" the game (Heidegger: we only notice broken tools). And Cow Clicker, September 12th, and even Rubikon accomplish that break in similar ways, by boring the player, by making them do something exceptionally tedious and/or exceptionally hard.

And I don't think satire in games has to be limited to that definition, either. Videogames are multimodal, which means they incorporate other mediums, which means they can incorporate the satire of those other mediums. Even if the satire fails to land entirely on the procedural level, it can still come through in the images, the text, the sound, or other ways. The little interactions I have with the low and high threat constructs were text-based, little messages that drew my attention to the constructed nature of the dungeon, and, by extension, all dungeons.(Sidenote: I don't think I've ever set the dungeon to medium. I wonder what those constructs say? They probably complain that no one ever sees them.)  And it doesn't do that satirical influencing in a vacuum either--procedural rhetoric integrates with the text-based message, by virtue of repeating the message over and over. I think the real measure of whether satire, of any type, is effective, is whether the reader/player/witness realizes that it's occurring. And that's a tendency that varies a lot, from witness to witness, but also from one cultural context to another. I teach Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" regularly, and there will always be a few students who, for one reason or another, don't see it as satirical. Does that make it a less effective satire? Well, for them it does.

So I guess the only conclusion I have is that the effectiveness of satire is based on one's perspective. One person's tragedy is another person's farce. But don't take it from me--just ask the Evil Wizard. Odds are, though, no matter what you ask, he'll only have one response.

Later Days.

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