What is a fail state in video games? Is it when the screen fades to black and you have to press a button to continue or to reload at the last checkpoint? Is that point of death in Braid where the screen goes grey after jumping into spikes and you have to rewind time, is that too a fail state? It certainly is much more of a soft one than the others and quite literally sends you back to the moment before you jumped. I’ve recently been going through the excellent episodic series Life is Strange, a game too that is light on fail states and uses it’s time manipulation mechanic to undo them. But it also uses failure of that mechanic, the ability of the character Max, to emphasise key story beats where failure is an unfortunate, potential, consequence. Ultimately that is what fail states and their various incarnations are used as signifiers for, consequence, you didn’t kill the dragon, try again from back here, the way in which they are implemented and their punishing nature can very much change the entire dynamics of the game.
Do then all video games need fail states? Does the nature of choice inherent in a game, even a relativity linear one like the Uncharted series, require failure as a sort of test of engagement? There are certainly games, like the Mario series, that have a larger overarching sort of failure counter that seems to only hang around for legacy reasons as running out of lives in such a game is a non-trivial task. Failure ultimately is one of the near consistent aspects of video games, whether it’s baked into the design itself or whether the player quits before the end (assuming it has an end) there are rare counterexamples but the removal of a failure state requires also removing far more choice from the player than should be expected for an heavily interactive medium like games.
There is no right way to make tea
There is no correct temperature for the water
There is no specific time for leaving it to brew
There is no definitive type of cup form which to enjoy it in
There is no proper order to adding the sugar and dash of milk
(there bloody well is)
Reading a book has always been somewhat of an issue, not the consumption itself but the act of starting. Long books can seem daunting, especially those once started and then put down, to pick up again is arduous and once finished, starting another is hardly in the front of my mind. So I’ve been reading The New Yorker and the London Review of Books in an effort to stymie the intellectual pit that is the break between books.
It seems, on the face of it, to have been a successful endeavour, the things I know seem to be growing and I no longer feel that guilty feeling that I should read more or that sinking stagnation in that dank recess that is my mind. This blog too has been long rotting in my absence and I think it is time to resume that grand experiment and use it to make my writing better (read, not sucky).
To start, a monthly writing something here. To continue, that thing should be good. Finally, that thing should be interesting.
‘We may have differences of opinion as to the value of reaching the Pole. If we apply the utilitarian test, it is all small moment, but so is a poem. And what is polar exploration but an epic endeavour in which all sordidness is left behind, and in which a man, knowing the risks and challenges of failure, ventures his life and his all in a combat against the forces of ignorance? For I deem it beneath dignity of man, having once set out to reach that mathematical point which marks the northern termination of the axis of earth, which stands as a sign of his failure to dominate those millions of square miles of unknown country, to give it up because the night is dark and the road is long. He will not give it up. The polar explorer typifies the outdoor spirit of the race which has lead conquering man across all seas and through all lands, of that thirst for knowing all there is to be known, which has led him to the depths of the ocean, to the tops of the mountains, to dig in musty caves, to analyse the rays of light from distant worlds, to delve into the geologic records of past times. It will carry him to the North Pole, too, and that before many years have past. Any one who supposes anything else of man doesnt know man. His acquaintance with human nature— with the nature of the adventurous races of our zones and times— is limited.’
– Walter Wellman, National Geographic, December 1899. Found in The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery
To attract readers, Grosvenor would have to change the public’s attitude towards geography, which he knew was regarded “one of the dullest of all subjects, something to inflict upon schoolboys and avoid in later life.” The Society’s key to success, a popular approach to geography, was missing.
He began by studying other geographic journals then being published by geographic societies throughout the world. He next turned to those books in which geography played an important part, books that have endured like Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast, Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World, and Herodotus’s travels, written 2000 years before. What was there in Herodotus’s History, Grosvenor wrote, “that gave the book such life that it had survived 20 centuries and was still going strong?” What did those geographic books to which readers had returned again and again have in common?
The answer, Grosvenor became convinced, was that “each with an accurate, eyewitness, first hand account. Each contained simple, straightforward writing – writing that sought to make pictures in the readers mind.”
– The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery pg. 42
The notion of adapting a work, conceptually, is something that has always intrigued me. So much of our culture consists of reworking of previous material which the internet in particular has thrown into overdrive. This new prominence of alteration, attempts at improvement and straight up copies brings the question of making an adaptation that is interesting. The remake of Star Wars: A New Hope years ago with ASCII or the other remake constituting stitched together of people recreating scenes in 15 second chunks are both interesting from a production standpoint but utterly unengaging as something to watch. So how do you make an adaptation that exists as it’s own enjoyable thing to watch?
There are, in my thinking, two principles that make adaptations work. The first is originality, a faithful adaptation is a bad adaptation, it either exists simply to bring the work into a different medium or to recapture the glory of the past work while putting a token stamp of creativity with different names in the credits. The second principle is surprise, even if your adaptation is faithful as possible having that one element of surprise, casting a previously male character as a female one can alter your interpretation of the whole work which, even if it seems small, can improve the whole product as a result.
For two examples we only have to look at two recent adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Sherlock is a bad adaptation, it has actors turning out good performances but the scripts are reminiscent of a drunk recalling a story, getting all the plot beats right but forgetting that A. They’ve told you this story before and B. You’re too sober to enjoy their crap. Whereas Elementary while suffering a little from over long series’s enjoys the privilege of being written by a drunk who while telling a story you’ve both heard before A. Knows this and plays with it B. Introduces elements alter the original story in unexpected ways.
I’m a well over half way through Wolfenstein: The New Order and I feel that if there’s one element of this game that stands out, beyond any other, it’s the damn animations. I first noticed it when sneaking down a corridor in the first level and a patrolling guard turned his head to look down the corridor as he passed. It didn’t make much of a difference functionally, the A.I. itself seems to be as near-sighted like most first person shooters, but it was that appearance of, well, humanness. In most games the interaction with the environment is that of a robot, pushing past things that it doesn’t think should be there and overall being quite stiff. I’ve been struggling to articulate how to phrase it, the only way that I can is that they act as though the ground is the only real thing and other objects are just solid untouchable barriers. Games have improved on this over time of course, wooden barriers now tend to get shot up, railings vaulted and glass smashed in an attempt to kill the player.
Animations feeling real does a great deal to improve the overall experience, you can have the prettiest skybox in the world but if your character gets stuck on or completely ignores geometry then it’s all buggered. The first game that really impressed me with this was Uncharted 3, a beautiful game but more importantly one where the playable character Nathan Drake reacts to being close to walls, he puts out his hands rather than bumping robotically against them, it’s not perfect and the A.I. in that still has remnants of finding solid objects mere barriers. Nevertheless it helps, it helps to have a world where you and everything else reacts it and that in turn the world reacts right back.