Friday, 22 May 2015

Ain’t Nobody Fresher Than My Click: I’m Not Really Getting Better At This, Am I?

Clicker games, or Incremental games to the initiated, are bits of software where you click on a screen and things happen. Popularised by the big daddy of them all Cookie Clicker, they appear to be going through a renaissance of sorts at the moment. As Nathan Grayson off of Kotaku told me this week, an Incremental called Clicker Heroes is super popular on the PC. Almost as popular as Grand Theft Auto V, which I gather is somewhat surprising. Or is it?

Austin Walker probably hits it straight on the head in his review of The Crew (emphasis my own):

The Crew is a prime example of the new power fantasy. If, as Rowan Kaiser has argued, the old fantasy was about having power, the new fantasy is about accumulating power. The old power fantasy was invincibility codes and infinite ammo. The new power fantasy is the feeling that you’ve earned your success by your hard work alone. This is the fantasy behind the guitar-riff that signifies that you’ve leveled up in Call of Duty multiplayer. It’s the fireworks and orchestral bombast of Peggle. It’s the steady return on investment in Fantasy Life. It is a power fantasy that reflects our time. We want to be reassured that our effort will pay off in the end, that progress is guaranteed, and that our achievements are fully our own.

The Incremental is the embodiment of this concept. Its gameplay offering is entirely flat, in that the first thing you do - clicking - is the only thing you do. Despite this, the Incremental keeps you playing by gently upping nonexistent stakes, making you feel increasingly powerful whilst you actually accomplish nothing. You click on things to allow yourself to click more - and faster. That is all you do.

You commonly begin with clicking for yourself in real time: once or twice a second. You then invest the currency you accrue through these clicks - gold, cookies, gems, whatever - into upgrades geared towards accumulating more currency more quickly. You are normally given two revenue streams: your own physical player-clicks and another set, this one generated for you by the game itself every second. This then spirals into absurd exponentiality, with you generating one, then a hundred, then a thousand, then a million, then a billion bits of currency every click/second. The quantities of booty one receives may indeed increase, but so too do the outlays necessary to maintain this growth. Things develop in a heavily regimented way. At the very beginning, when you’re earning one gold a click, an upgrade might cost you a thousand gold. It’s a thousand clicks. Ten hours later you’re up to a million gold a click. But your upgrades now cost a billion gold. It’s a thousand clicks. What you aspire to is exactly what you began with, just with more zeroes added onto the end.

The illusion of hard-won progress in games is pernicious. It gives us a sense of accomplishment where there shouldn’t be one. That we are leading some noble charge, when we are really just following orders. It makes us feel as though we’re investing our time in something worthwhile. As if we’re getting better at something tangible and transferable. Something we can proudly put on our C.V.s and show off to the world. We are having fun. We may be learning about people, places, subjects, experiences and stories. We might be developing better hand-eye coordination, but we might just as easily be developing carpal tunnel syndrome. What we aren't doing though, is ever, ever - ever getting better at anything beyond a game's specific and delineated series of challenges. We just aren't.   

RPG Clicker is a curious Incremental, in that it demands you play it more than most do. You have the common duo of player-clicks and automatically generated ones, but these auto-clicks don’t actually happen, well, wholly automatically. It is an Incremental, yes, but it is one dressed up as a fantasy role-playing game. Both types of clicks are used to hurt the enemies from whom, upon their deaths, you receive gold and experience points. Gold is used to increase the damage you deal per click (the more amorphous clicks per second of other Incrementals) by upgrading your sword - player clicks - and magic - auto-clicks. All very recognisable. However, your magic attacks are not constantly active, as is the case in most other games of the genre. Instead they are governed by a mana meter, and so wholly stop once it is depleted. Your mana pool and the rate at which it recharges can be upgraded with experience points as you level up, but at some point you’re going to run out of auto-clicks. This mightn’t sound Earth-shattering, but for a game of this type it is.

At some point in the lifecycle of playing an Incremental you reach a stage where you can just leave it be and let the numbers keep getting bigger. You might check in every few hours to spend clicks on generating more clicks, but you’re done with the actual player-clicking part. Because you have a finite supply of auto-clicks in RPG Clicker, you can’t actually get to this wonderful place. You have to be constantly aware of it, managing your mana supplies, switching between player/auto/dual click methods and regularly opening the loot chests that pop up and halt this furious progress altogether. It isn’t just a simple The Number Automatically Gets Bigger game. It’s a stripped back take on the recognisable RPG formula.

I stopped playing Dragon Age: Inquisition because I found it crushingly boring. Loads of it is combat based, and I just didn’t like the fighting. It’s all very removed and distant; not at all engaging. You hold down a button and your character attacks with a basic strike. If you press a different button they’ll do a special one, but this can only be performed once every, I dunno, twenty seconds. Another special can be used more frequently, say every ten, but it deals out less damage. What you’re left with - at least I was - is you holding down your basic attack button at all times to mete out tiny bits of aggression, while cycling through your specials, as and when they become available, to perform more damage. Or, to put it another way, you’re clicking on your phone screen at all times to mete out tiny bits of aggression, while using your magic auto-clicks, as and when they become available, to perform more damage.

Strip away the pretty graphics, voice acting, stories, characters and vast worlds and what you’re left with is often an Incremental. We’re not really getting better at lots of the games we play. We’re following a strictly predetermined path through a carefully-constructed ascendant bunch of challenges. If shooting that man in the head feels easier than it did a dozen hours ago it’s because Far Cry 4 wants it to feel easier. It’s because when you get about halfway through Far Cry 4 you’ll suddenly come across enemies wearing much sturdier armour. Enemies that most certainly aren’t easy to shoot in the head because it takes three bullets to get through their helmets. Far Cry 4 does this because you still, despite spending twenty-odd hours on it already, have ages left until it ends. It needs to make you want to continue. So it makes you stronger. But it also makes everything harder. Stronger. Harder. Stronger. Harder. Stronger. Harder. Until the very end. The net outcome is the same at all times: a perfectly manageable level of difficulty. As your challenges become more complex you are able to surmount them with newfound skills. Skills you earnt. But also skills that were given right to you. You may have spent experience points to unlock them, but they were there all the time. Something to aim towards. Something to aspire to. Something to keep you doing the same tired old stuff you’ve been doing for years.

I’d hazard that this mistaken sense of legitimate mastery is partially to blame for the rampant aggression inherent in some of the discourse surrounding games. It creates a sense of superiority, where skillful play loses all context and begins to represent us in, but also out of games. This in turn allows the purely mechanical competition of playing, whether that be against others directly or a single player campaign, to manifest itself in the world outside of the game. We become better people because we are better at games, better than those other people. This can’t possibly be the case.

The one thing that is often forgotten about games is that they are made in the first place. We talk about their design all the time, but regularly forget that a large part of that design is expressly there to make us invested in playing to begin with. In tackling their challenges we are adhering to the rules created for us. We are not, and never are, doing anything on our own terms. As the Incremental shows us, we are often simply following a structured progression created to funnel us ever onwards, to ensure we keep playing. We are not the masters of destiny; we are being led by the hand, nudged forwards and coerced with baubles at every step. In this way, no true empowerment can come from games. Not in isolation, anyway. Which is why division, aggression and segregation make us all weaker, regardless of whether we maxed out that skill tree or not.


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Thursday, 21 May 2015

Sorcery! On My Phone is Great (And I'm Not Embarrassed to Say So)


I self-consciously balked at the stuff deemed goofy by my peers. As a kid you listened to Papa Roach, talked about football, watched the late night softcore on Channel 5, ate your end of term lunch at McDonald's, played football, chased girls, skipped homework, watched football and stole booze from your parents. I only actually liked two of those things - the nu metal and the blueys, obviously - and so spent a fair bit of my time pretending to be into the others outside of school, where, conveniently, no one could see me not doing them. I don't think I fooled anyone, but at the time it seemed I just about passed the societal conditions necessary to be a cool kid. For one to maintain this status you couldn't really like more fringe pastimes. Magic cards? Not a chance. Dungeons & Dragons? Ha! Warhammer (40K or otherwise)? The only little figures you were allowed to play with were of the Subbuteo variety (football again). Acknowledging the other kids who liked these things? Big no no. By the age of about fifteen I’d had enough of this sham personality and jumped ship (let's be honest: I was pushed), but I'd already missed out on many an enlightening formative year. It is for this collection of customarily awkward adolescent reasons that I have never sampled a Fighting Fantasy book.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Tunnel Vision: Taking Care of Business (TCB)

Getting aggy in the dark.

The first few hours are a right blur. Just a collection of scattered little moments really. Trudging ever forwards through the darkness. Peaking at Bad Men through the gap between a stack of barrels. Cowering in dark corners of rooms, trying to hide myself from the dangerous flicker of campfires. Shaking, shotgun in hand, as enemies walk past me a few yards away, hoping beyond hope that they won't spot me. Being armed with dangerous looking guns but not really knowing how to use them. And that's about it.

Friday, 24 April 2015

One Hit Wonder: Double Dragon Neon and Miriam…? Muriel…? No, it’s Marian!

Does just copying someone else's mistake afford you unaccountability?

The new Spider-Man isn’t going to come with an origin story, apparently. I’d hazard that this is because the lovely people at Marvel/Disney/Sony are finally sure everyone knows why Spider-Man is Spider-Man. He was bitten by a scientifically fiddled-with spider and inadvertently let his hubris hurt those closest to him. Essentially, he learnt that “with great power comes great responsibility”. This kind of stuff is, I think, built into the Western, movie-hungry consciousness, so it's nice to hear it isn't going to be forced upon patrons again.

Less widely known, but still tiresomely unnecessary, is the origin story of Double Dragon. Its complex tale of two men beating up lots of people is set in motion by the heartbreaking scene of a woman being punched in the stomach, thrown over a burly bloke's shoulder and having her almost bare arse shown off to all who'll take a look. The lady in question, Marian, is (bizarrely) the joint love interest of protagonist brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee, but also all the sexualised MacGuffin 80s players needed to go and bonk some bonces. ‘It were a different time’, you see, so that's about as complex as narrative justifications got.

Double Dragon received a reboot in 2012 in the shape of Neon. It added numerous extra levels of mechanical complexity and a good ol' dose of persistent character progression - things deemed necessary to bring the aged beat ‘em up into the modern era. Marian, by contrast, still gets a smack in the gut for being a woman, and remains merely a hollow trinket for players to follow. While how one plays the game is deemed important enough to warrant an overhaul, moribund gender representations and a morsel of respect for narrative are clearly not.

The genre is, of course, largely defined by its mechanical purity. It harks back to the days of arcades, where getting through combat challenges was a thrill unto itself, buoyed along by skill or sheer fiscal determination. Completing the game efficiently and without spending a small fortune was a player's aim, and this tension is largely lost once continues are stripped of their monetary value. What we're left with, then, is a relatively rudimentary collection of inputs; combinations of punch, kick and block are tiresomely anemic when compared to newer, more complex games. Something as simple as Double Dragon cannot possibly compete with the likes of contemporary Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden games. They offer hugely deep combat experiences, where positioning, stance, weapons and combo strings affect the very core of one's offensive and defensive capabilities. A 2D beat 'em up, by virtue of its own design tenets, can't possibly feature comparable depth. Yet Neon is preoccupied with augmenting its mechanics within the strict generic template it is confined to, chasing an unachievable complexity while developing very little else. Neon is, essentially, a flashier copy of the original.

Wholesale reproduction-with-bells-on has proved genuinely effective in the past. Evil Dead II is a slapstick take on Evil Dead, which sees the absurdity of the original’s low budget aesthetic being played for laughs within the framework of what is essentially the same story told again. Aspects of Hulk Hogan’s fight with King Kong Bundy at WrestleMania II were reworked to great effect the following year. At WrestleMania III he picked up and slammed the 520 pound AndrĂ© the Giant, creating what is still one of the most enduring images of professional wrestling. Nirvana’s follow up to Nevermind, In Utero, was consciously created to appear similar to their mainstream breakthrough in terms of basic composition and sound. It was, however, produced in a very raw and stripped-back way, and in parts features many abrasive and contradictory elements. Ultimately it is very difficult to compare the two, and upon release In Utero accomplished the band’s desired goal of alienating casual listeners. Skillfully created reproductions, those with a real intent, tend to work out quite well.

Neon seems to tacitly acknowledge that Marian's depiction is outmoded. Right at the end of the credits, after the men have spent the whole game beating on others to protect her honour, and while she has been held prisoner and (surprise, surprise) brainwashed into being a momentary adversary, it is Marian who strikes the final, lethal blow to chief-antagonist Skullmageddon. She is, ultimately, the only one strong enough to bring the story to a close after so many false endings and mid-stage boss battles. The men on the title screen spent hours whipping Ol' Skullers and were still only able to subdue him for a few minutes. Marian truly gets it done though, Neon tells us. But her victory is hidden right at the end. Admittedly, there is a catchy song playing over the entire credits scroll to hold people's attention, but even so, some will miss this token gesture. It's past the end after all, can you blame them? It's like - to go back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a moment - Nick Fury popping up right at the end of Iron Man. Him doing so is a lovely little wink to diehard fans, but the average moviegoer will be queueing for the toilet by that point. He isn't part of the plot; he's outside of it, something to look forward to or get you thinking, but he isn't integral to anything that came before his tiny scene.

So why does Marian still need to get a slap?

The answer to this, in my mind, is because the experience of playing is usually held above anything else a game might have to offer. It’s why addons to Bioshock Infinite tout a “combat experience [that] has been rebalanced and reworked with a greater emphasis on stealth and resource management” (woop woop), right up there with the main draw: a continuation of its story. It’s why Titanfall’s entire single player portion is a series of offline multiplayer matches you play against your Xbox. It’s why Shadow of Mordor’s numerous expansions all take place in entirely the same location as the main game and simply tweak the mechanics a bit. It’s why Far Cry 4 is Far Cry 3 and then some (but not much more). If it's fun to play does anything else really matter?

Neon lets you counter attacks, share lives with your co-op partner and pull out a high five at a moment’s notice. It, in many ways, plays more smoothly than previous Double Dragon titles. And while it is still a bit clunky to move about and perform these maneuvers, it at least pinpoints the deficiencies of its inspiration and works to sort them out. It also gently pokes fun at 80s machismos; painting the Lee brothers as unintelligent, air guitar-wielding, dudebro-ing fools. It sort of does a lot of things right when it comes to updating the template it is - by virtue of being a flashy copy -  beholden to follow. Which makes it all the more of a shame that the single most outdated aspect of the series, Marian’s place within the whole mess, is left almost intact. Neon might be intentionally dumb fun, yes, but it isn’t by any means clueless. Perpetuating this kind of tasteless, backward-looking representation - especially when it changes so much else - isn’t done out of ignorance, it is done out of indifference. And that, to put it lightly, just isn’t very fun.


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It isn't just women who face a glass ceiling when it comes to monetary income. I, even as a white male living in one of the most expensive cities on the planet, still manage to earn a paltry sum every month. If you're thankful in any way for my free written gift to you, maybe consider making it ever so slightly less free by donating to my lovely Patreon, it resides here: Chrz.