Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Procedural Rhetoric and SPAZ

Procedural rhetoric is the idea that the execution of a series of rules (such as in a game) creates a persuasive argument. Space Pirates and Zombies (hereafter: SPAZ) is a 2D top-down action RPG in the vein of Elite, Escape Velocity, Space Ranger, etc.

SPAZ puts you in the role of a space pirate. A galaxy is generated on demand, populated with star systems inhabited by factions (initially Civ and UTA to represent civilians and military) who are always at war with each other, and may or may not be at war with you. Each faction has a random value from the subset {Hate, Dislike, Neutral, Like, Friend} assigned to you, where anything below neutral becomes “shoot on sight” and can be altered through bribes or missions at the expense of the other faction’s relationship. Each star also has gates leading to other stars, gates protected by the UTA.

There are three resources: goons (essentially hostage humans), rez (money), and data (experience). All three can be obtained from destroyed ships, but goons can be bought for rez and sold for rez or data, or to buy faction rep. Goons and rez are required to make new ships when your fleet is destroyed during combat.
Unlike other Elite games, you can’t ferry trade goods back and forth to make a profit. You can mine by exploring asteroid fields or hanging around mining bases to pick up spare rez (and if you run out of resources, this is your only recourse) but once you have built up a fleet of significant size, it’s quite a bit easier to tear down a few UTA blockades and scavenge their remnants for all three resources. Each star system also has starbases that can sell techs if your relationship is high enough, but those techs also are yielded when the starbase is destroyed as well. Hint, hint.

In any given star system, you can either spend resources in bribes or gain resources by playing the factions against each other. Resources can be gained peacefully but slowly, or quickly and savagely. Factions can help you out, but their destruction would grant you equal benefits. To top it all off, it’s much cheaper to blow through low-level blockades than to bribe your way through them.

Ergo, SPAZ essentially gives you two options. The lawful trading game, which is tedious and low-reward, and the pirate game where you get to have exciting space battles (the mechanics of which are beyond the scope of this post for now) that reward you with plenty of resources and as a side effect, grant you a few Steam achievements. These two mechanics aren’t even, and end up forming a compelling reason to be the titular space pirate. Thus, the mechanics create meaning.


I think it’s important to continue cataloging how games create meaning. Once again, the Fun/Not Fun argument is rearing its head and is reinforced by the constant re-visitation of the ludo-narrative experience. There’s not anything wrong with it, but you know how this goes. Stand on empty beach, draw line in sand. Stranger shows up and asks, “But what is a line, anyway?”

Someone else appears and holds up a ruler, and yet another person drops in to say, “Rulers are hegemonic instruments of coercion, and do you even know how that ruler was made?” All of a sudden a thousand people are defining a thousand lines.

You look down at your feet to find that you are enclosed by a hundred tiny scribbles. You wonder how to even begin building something out of this mess, this shared illusion of our metaphorical beach. You look up and imagine a beautiful sandcastle that we can all agree is a beautiful castle no matter the definition of “castle”.

You look down at your feet again and those lines are still there. Straight, slashes, dashes, sinusoidal. You pick up your Game Boy and tell yourself it’s not just a distraction. There is something here. You are giving away your time and receiving something precious and ineffable, and you are in no way fooling yourself, right?

The beach collapses. Only the screen exists. You are absorbed. You feel something come into you from the screen. You want to explain your journey, depict and delineate it so others can follow. You draw a line.