Thursday, May 26, 2011

Climbing the Starting Blocks (Gremlins II: The New Batch and Guardian Legend)

At some point, these blog entries collapse towards solipsism. It's bad enough when this happens purely because the games in question are so mind-wrenchingly bad that there is nothing to say about them. It's far more annoying when it happens on basically decent games. I mean, here... one of the games is Gremlins II! If nothing else, I ought to be able to bash out a nice bit of autobiography about the Gremlins movies, how they were my first horror movies, and how good they are at being first horror movies because they give you a throughline of something to enjoy other than the gory spectacle. Even though the Gremlins movies are really about the comedy of putting a cute fuzzy Mogwai into a horror movie, they are also, by extension, about the comedy of putting a horror movie into a kids movie full of Mogwais. The most traumatic scene for me, then, was the one where the Mogwais start to turn, because the cute things were going away and they were the best part. (Accordingly, think how horrible the movies would have been if not for Gizmo remaining unchanged. That decision is what makes those movies.)

Instead of that analysis, we crash towards this pathetically masturbatory nested structure of posts as if neo-Borgesian structure games make up for a lack of definitive insight. I mean, look at this crap:

The line one has to walk with these more political posts is one between stridency and useful engagement. Sure, I can fire off a great blog post about the fundamental flaws of the Less Wrong crowd. I can even agree with it, since I think the Less Wrong crowd is chasing a poorly defined dead end that is siphoning energy off of actual pragmatic social justice to create what amounts to a manual on how to live a consumerist middle class life as robotically as possible.

But why? Who does that benefit? I mean, I'm genuinely concerned that this is an essentially narcissistic and masturbatory act. I mean, let's look at what I was writing before I gave up:

I wrote several hundred words of this entry before I stopped and realized something wasn't working in it. This happens every once in a while, and since I'm banking entries hardly even counts as a problem - no real time pressure was created by my dead end. The problem with this dead end was this - I was largely confident in the basic angle. What I wanted to talk about in these two games was definitely the problem of the rough start in NES games.

We'll use the example from Gremlins II, since the draft material of the original entry is mostly Guardian Legend. Gremlins II is a perfectly nice Zelda-esque overhead game. Actually, the nearest cousin I can think of is Startropics. But man, the early difficulty is lethal. Mowgli is just a bit too fragile, the enemies a bit too durable, and the tomatoes you throw a bit too puny to make it a fair start. And it's discouraging, and that interested me. Because there was nothing wrong with either game - they just pissed me off to the point where I didn't want to play them. And that was what I wanted to talk about. But as I said, clearly it went wrong. So let's look at what I had and see where it went wrong:

The largest tool of oppression that the universe has ever created is inertia. On every level and in every effort, whether it be a large scale political movement or a small scale personal improvement campaign, intertia is the absolute bugger all. To some extent, this is a statement of such blithering obviousness as to not be worth making. If oppression is simply defined as a bad situation that requires change, then the fundamental tendency of objects to resist change is, from a social justice standpoint, basically the worst thing in the world.

But picking up on the theme from Tuesday, if we are to take as our fundamental revolutionary act deciding that we are not obliged to earn our happiness and we may simply opt to create it, it is inertia that proves the most immediate barrier.

So far as I can tell, neither Gremlins II nor Guardian Legend are bad games. I say so far as I can tell because in half an hour of trying, I made very little progress in either one.

From what I gather, however, Guardian Legend is quite the classic game with a wide variety of genres effectively blended. But the first of those genres - the Gradius style shooter - proved a fairly insurmountable barrier. Half an hour of trying and I still couldn't quite clear the boss.

The big philosophical question here is simple - the declaration that we will be in control of our own happiness is not equivalent to an absolute right to be happy. The entire point of the exercise is that happiness is not going to be treated as a commodity that we must earn, but rather that it will be treated like a craft project or a work of art - something that we are entitled to build. There will still be work required to make ourselves happy.

The question is what degree of effort ought be spent trying to overcome inertia.

This problem is worsened by the fact that inertia and momentum are actually basically the same thing. Just as it takes an unusually large exertion of energy to get something to start moving, it takes added energy to stop it. Thus we have a Scylla and Charybdis situation going - we both are disinclined to put in effort to start doing something new and are disinclined to stop doing something old, leading to problems like "throwing good money after bad."

Much as I would like to declare an easy and obvious solution to this, it is an intensely intractable problem. Even if we ask it only on the level of basic happiness, it proves surprisingly difficult to straightforwardly resolve. Exactly how much time should I spend trying to beat the first boss on Guardian Legend once I begin to get frustrated?

Part of this, though, is a matter of bad design. The first boss of Guardian Legend is surely no harder than most of the levels of the recent indie game Super Meat Boy. And yet I am happy to spend large amounts of time flailing at Super Meat Boy in a way that I don't want to with Guardian Legend. This is because Super Meat Boy tries to minimize the penalty for death - you splatter and there's a half second delay before you get to try the level again, and each level is fairly small. Whereas in Guardian Legend, a single death results in a game over such that I have to start a new game and play for 90 seconds before I've earned the right to die again. (Amusingly, when I went to time how long it takes to get to the first boss, I beat it finally and got to the next bit of game. Where I flailed for a bit, then died. Somewhere in here is a lesson.)

In game design, the concept in question is the death penalty. Basically, it's the matter of how you punish players for failure without getting them to give up playing the game. For the most part, in most game design, it turns out that low death penalties make for better games, and most games have progressed towards that.

The problem with all of that seems to me this: unless I had intended for the entry to be a mocking parody of the Less Wrong crowd - which, to be fair, would not have been out of line as an entry - it's complete rubbish. It falls into the same trap that the entire "lifehacking" movement seems to me to fall into - an obsessive focus on optimizing functionality wildly out of proportion to actual utility.

I mean, let's use a real example. I just pulled up Less Wrong, and picked not quite at random the following article: "Suffering as attention-allocational conflict." Now, let me be honest - I more or less like the Less Wrong crowd on a personal level. But jeez. Ostensibly the post is a lot like ours from Tuesday - a piece about cognitive approaches to making your life a more pleasant one.

But I think there's a rather key difference. I point out that there's a fundamental flaw in our ideological construction of happiness from a childhood level up, and suggest a contra-social approach to remedying the problem, or at the very least, suggest that pursuing our own happiness and demanding good compensation for willingly being unhappy is a good idea. Mostly I view this as post-consumer ideology 101: do not approach late capitalism as if its end goals are equivalent to personal happiness.

The Less Wrong essay reduces the entire concept of human suffering to an analogy about error messages on a personal computer, and determines that suffering comes from failing to adequately acknowledge an expressed desire by part of your overall psyche.

The problem with this... well, it's tough to articulate. Especially because any time you try articulating something like this to the Less Wrong crowd they just start whacking you with "can you be more concrete about that" like they're trying to see if you slip up and they can declare that you fail the Turing Test. Not that they'd ever accuse you of it. They'd just make some snide comment about how you clearly don't know enough about Bayesian Inference, then strip naked and worship at their big giant airstrip in the jungle waiting for the Cargo Singularity to come.

But the problem is this. Less Wrong far too often consists of a bunch of middle class technocrats coming up with clever Wittgensteinian word games to play in order to optimize happiness, and they are far too willing to engage in these games even on concepts like human suffering. The entire piece is about an attempt to rework how you think about things in your life to make you happier. It's Doctor Phil for the techno-libertarian crowd. Even before you get into their odious dislike of postmodernism, there's something wrong here. And it's the word choice. "Suffering." I mean, they're not just offering tips for working with depression. No, no. They're tackling human suffering - a problem usually more associated with things like starvation, lack of adequate medical care, and the fact that we willingly divide the world into an isolated and rich elite and a vast poor underclass.

I mean, let's be blunt here. The root problem of Less Wrong is that it's a bunch of privileged technocrats discussing lifehacks to optimize their happiness. And that this may be an acceptable way to spend your time, but that it is in no way an acceptable activity to describe as meaningfully utopian or focused on human progress. The basic message of Less Wrong - try to be more rational - is a fantastic one. But rather ignores the pressing matter of what one should be rational about.

So basically, aren't we just prissy mc-authorpants here. But look, the point stands. Anyone using the word "suffering" for the purpose "blogging about how sad conflicting social engagements makes me" is so spectacularly out of tune with the actual material conditions of people in their world that one wonders if there is any remedy beyond simply abandoning them in one of the urban slums of our "emerging economies" (Mumbai or Sao Paolo would be fantastic choices) and seeing how that goes for them.

When asked this way, one starts to wonder about this whole concept of individual happiness in the first place. Certainly it doesn't seem to be working out very well for us. All we've managed to produce is a massive wealth gap where the people who have wildly more than everybody else on the planet then sit around and write blog posts about how if they could only optimize their decision making algorithms they could stop being so unhappy. If we're thinking on a remotely big picture level, the fact that depression appears to exist as a recognized problem only among technologically and economically "advanced" western people should be a big honking warning sign. (The answer to this warning sign may well simply be that "depression is less of a problem than dysentery," but this begs the question of why any medical research at all has gone into SSRIs while the whole dysentery thing is still going on. Oh yes. Because health care is a consumer commodity. Somewhere, someone quietly points out that when you can actually use the same measurement of value to cover flat screen TVs and chemotherapy and can express a round of chemo in "how many televisions that cost," you have basically gone so completely wrong that merely being "less" so isn't gonna cut it.)

I mean, here we are consuming finite resources with no plan B and in wholesale disregard for the fact that we are actually cooking the planet to death by doing so, and it's not even fucking making us happy. Surely whatever solution we cook up to that silly little "inertia" problem in the original draft of this entry would say that when you are throwing sufficient effort at a problem that you are quite literally going to KILL US ALL with your efforts and you are still not actually getting anywhere meaningful on it, maybe, just maybe, it's time to back off.

Or at the very least to ask again whether we are simply too hard on games. Returning to Guardian Legend, which, in between attempts to figure out where this blog post is going wrong, I've been playing, I find I'm actually getting the hang of this Zelda-esque section in between space fights. I'm completely lost and sure I should have been drawing a map, but I'm increasingly realizing that this is a game I would have really enjoyed at the time. And yet I'm not going to beat it. I'm going to give up on this fun thing and move on to something else. Why? That something else will likely cost money - whether it be a comic, a book, a movie, at some point I am going to expend money to have fun when I could just play Guardian Legend.

Seriously, cry me a fucking river. The underlying problem is that my entire lifestyle is supported by cruelly exploitative labor practices while I piss and moan about my lack of a cushy academic job? I've got virtual slaves stitching together my clothes and picking my food so I can survive long enough to write witty remarks about video games, and I'm unhappy that I can't get paid to stand in front of other middle class fucks and tell them about literature?

Never mind Ben Stein's bullshit about the have-nots hating the haves. I'm perfectly willing to be the haves hating the haves. Perhaps depression is a wholly appropriate consequence. Here we are, cooking the planet, and what do we have to show for it? Who wouldn't be depressed to realize that?

More money went into producing Guardian Legend than some people will see over their entire lifetimes. In the face of stark reality like that, does whether the game is good or bad even have any bearing on whether or not we should suck it up and play it thoroughly before we move on to other things?

I made it to the next space shooter bit, but got eaten by a giant fish.

But then I hit continue.


  1. Some excellent posts of late. Unfortunately, I don't understand a fucking word of them. :)

  2. This kind of thing is why I avoid questioning too many levels of my own pitifully abundant existence. In the end, I suppose embracing the simulacrum is the only possibility without moving to Mumbai, if all criticism will, with any integrity, amount to self-criticism....

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