Saturday, June 29, 2024

seeing like a state machine

I've been into automation games lately. This is a style of game where instead of punching trees to get wood, you get robots to punch the trees for you. Typically the output of one automation goes into the input of another to make increasingly complex supply chains. The goal of the game is to balance your inputs and outputs for maximum efficiency while moving towards more sophisticated products. The key to these games tends to be monitoring your inputs and outputs, which makes interface elements like production charts incredibly important. When I picked up Nova Lands, a smaller-scale automation game, I was boggled when there were no production charts at all. 

Seeing Like A State is a book detailing failures of top-down administrative beueararacacraacy (Cards on the table - I will never learn how to spell this word). The book takes a few case studies of elements where The State, such as a king, wants to know how many ships they can create in order to judge their ability to go to war. In order to know how many ships can be built, the state must be able to tally the amount of lumber that can be produced. In order to know the amount of lumber that can be produced, they must know the square footage of their forests and how much lumber can be obtained per square foot of forest. However, forests are not homogenous. Forests can be dense or light, and their boundaries might be marked with scrub or they might have clearings. Wouldn't it be easier if we could simply chop down the messy, unmanaged forests and replace them with scientifically planted forests containing trees in neat rows, allowing the state precise measurements of square footage and yield per square foot, thus lumber yield, thus the number of ships that can be built, thus the wartime capacity of the state? 

Every management game puts you in the perspective of A State, in one way or another. In Civilization you literally embody the undying avatar of a civilization, in SimCity you are the omnipotent mayor, in Dwarf Fortress you are the unseen commander giving orders to make buildings and workshops. As The State, you must know the sum total of your capacity in order to make decisions - can I afford this new building? Can I overpower my foe in a war? Do I have enough stockpiles to survive the winter? Certainly it is possible to play all of these games poorly, to reject knowledge and therefore efficacy. Yet mastery pushes the player towards certain directions, most of all in the automation game. The automation game is most concerned with efficient inputs and outputs, making the most of your forests to supply your lumber yards to supply your shipwrights. Mostly this is achieved by skyrocketing costs later in the supply chain. For example, in Satisfactory, it's fairly easy to produce Copper Wire: 1 copper ore produces 1 copper ingot which produces 2 copper wire, 15 per minute. Efficiency does not matter much here. By the time you need to produce motors, you need 240 units of wire per minute. Inefficacy strains the limited number of copper mines, the highly constrained power supply, and the wait time for prerequisite production items to flow through the chain. Therefore, monitoring throughput and efficacy is an important part of playing Satisfactory. The game includes many, many elements to help you understand the throughput of your production line. 

Nova Lands has no charts or graphs to show throughput. The best you get is little stockpiles at your factories to show the surplus accumulation of inputs or outputs. You must jet your avatar across islands, eyeballing where things are piling up or where factories are idle. I rebelled furiously against this. This was a waste of my time! These facts could have been consumed neatly and presented in an organized fashion from a single interface! My avatar could be sitting with his feet up on his throne, perusing reports and dispatching orders to shore up productions! 

Scientific forestry failed in its first incarnations. Replacing the natural growth of forests, messy as they were, with neat lines of trees did not account for the web of life that relied on those interplays and helped maintain the health of the forest, as well as provide food for the people living on the outskirts. The lack of diverse stock meant a single disease could fell an entire grove. Seeing Like A State, through this example and others, shows how a top-down view often ignores these facts-on-the-ground. One solution the book arrives at is "local control". Who knows the relationship between the trees and the rest of the forest better than the beurarararacararat? The forester who works it. The person who is present, lives the relationships that already exist, and suffers the consequences of homogenization first. 

Real life is entangled, but digital life only has the functions we give it. Nova Land has no complex web of life sustaining it, or consequences for translating the entire land into bleak industrial output. It would be a mistake to simply conclude that charts are a tool of the state, and by removing them and forcing me to hop from island to island, Nova Land embodies the concept of "local control". The inputs and outputs here are still neat homogenous bricks, easy to count, every one ultimately interchangeable for the other. However, Nova Life is designed - it controls the menu, therefore it controls the choices. It does not have charts or graphs and as a result, my time was spent personally monitoring the inputs and outputs of each factory and island. By thinking about my avatar as investing time in the islands, I was able to reframe my interaction with Nova Land's interface from "This is missing something I am used to" towards "I am getting a new perspective by having this element taken away from me". I stopped thinking about what I wished it did differently, and started engaging with what it was doing for me. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

what was the AAA game


There is not a formal definition of "AAA game". You can not pin down a dollar value or team size that makes one game "AAA" and another not. The term itself shares a name with a credit rating of the most trustworthy, safest class of investing assets. That's all this is - a vibe saying "we're the safe pick". Equally prestigious or maligning, depending on your audience. AAA prestige or "more AAA trash". 

So what is this thing that has no definition but still draws such a stark boundary? Well, I've always been a sucker for robot dinosaurs. Let me take a recent release to PC and put on my calm observational New Critic hat, and explore the sensation of this game as it is. Let me load up Horizon: Zero Dawn: Uncharted West. No, damnit, that's not the name. Horizon: Forzabidden West. No! Ok, now I will put on my calm New Critic hat...


you have to start here. a save point-campfire is placed inside a cave and the sun slices across a wall, moving as the sun sets and dust dances in the beams.


everyone has unique voices and faces and mannerisms. places are packed with nooks and crannies to explore.


i still hit the wrong button about a quarter of the time. i fully ignore weapon skills because it's one button too many for me to keep track of. i'm thankful for my fancy controller which lets me remap stick clicks to back paddles. there's also so much to do, each in its own little loop . i get sunk in and when i start getting itchy i change the task im working on a bit, from exploration to item gathering to combat to questing to machine strike. there's so much here and i'm scratching the surface.


it makes me feel at peace, honestly. brain off, todo list on, check off the items one by one. job well done, maybe some room for improvement next time, maybe some better weapons or better armor or a higher level.


yes, it's detailed, and also, it's staged. characters look off to your right, or stop speaking and stand for an extra second. gathering herbs is the act of exaggeratedly rubbing your hands over a plant for one second. the whole thing is obviously ridiculous, and that's why i'm here. i'm here to hunt robot dinosaurs, not see a drama or do a naturalism. but sometimes the characters try to convey pathos for the sixth time after a robot t-rex smacks me with its tail or murders me with its hip-mounted rocket launchers and i reload and try again. the harder you try to smash the "do a drama" button on my robot dinosaur game the harder i am going to smash the


skip button. this guy is taking an awful long time to tell me his brother is lost in the mountains. oh it's for some ritual? cool, fine. skip. your brother is maimed and you're being stubborn? just tell me what i need to do for the quest. skip. there are characters i like and people i will listen to but boy is that skip button a relief. do we talk about the skip button enough? it's like an essential function in a videogame, to me. there's an entire way of playing games that involves skipping as much as possible to go as fast as possible. the skip button is a miracle. 

slightly overwhelming

the controls are complex and the world is big and now i've been playing for 30 hours and there's still so much to do and i don't want to skip anything because then i have a gap in my todo list and, as many arch tumblr posts have noted, what is a power fantasy if not merely completing the tasks I have given myself? 


part of the complexity is like, "ok, now here's the crate puzzle". and sometimes it is just "look for the highlighted area and use your tool on the highlight and pull the crate over. you did it! you solved the puzzle! great job, here's a treat". but sometimes it's more opaque and i get stuck while the character mutters "gotta use my focus" over and over in my ear and it's been ten minutes and i open up a walkthrough on my phone to see that i've been looking in the totally wrong place and doing things out of order and didn't realize that this particular rock was destructible. for all the talk about yellow paint (plenty present here!) i still get turned around and lost and baffled by,... crate puzzles? i just can't figure out the new rules to each of these unique things and i mash the wrong pieces together like an infant. also like an infant, i cry when it doesn't work. fyi.


not in the sense of the world, which has so many things i take occasional week-long breaks due to feeling overwhelmed, but in the sense of like... ok this area has a "mercury poisoning in the lake" subplot in text logs from 3,000 years ago or whatever and it doesn't matter at all. alloy mutters "the water feels thick... polluted?" when you get in once and nothing else. you can find the logs from environmentalists saying "hey you're polluting" and some more logs saying "we love polluting so we can put mercury in vaccines" from CEOs and i don't know, man. this doesn't awaken my curiosity or enrich the world at all. it just feels like Environmental Storytelling (derogatory), obligatory stuff put in to keep me busy and to add collectibles to the screen. there's no charge and no spark, just a rote flipping through of a book of clichés. which is like, fine, but also there's sixteen paragraphs about each one when it's a cliché, you need two sentences to evoke it and then I hit the skip button anyway. and its not like i miss anything. functionally, narratively, you swoop into a community, do two quests per community to Enrich The Community, you're out. todo list item complete! 

does this society work? does alloy have the right to charge into these people's lives? in a sense, who cares, this is a game about robot dinosaurs. but in another sense, the robots are there because of climate change, and these are people living in a post-climate-apocalypse, does the game care about that at all? I don't think so. It has nothing to say to us, in the present about it, except that it might be bad if we let robots destroy the planet. It's not particularly passionate about Alloy's role as interloper. It just wants to make her look badass (which i do appreciate). but it seems like the game thinks it should care about these things so it throws in some scraps of text once in a while about it. it's very funny that this game is getting translated to a Lego game because it will fit in with the also-Legofied empty politics of a Star Wars movie or a Marvel movie absolutely perfectly, despite the sometimes-apparent ambitions towards weightier goals which mostly get expressed as "Billionaires..... are bad.... maybe?". 

this is all leaving aside the red-hot topic of "what on earth is going on with the depictions of race and face paint and noble savage tropes in this game", a topic that frankly deserves a special task force with subpoena powers. im sure there are weird internal emails about this and we all deserve to know about them. 

not flawless

i think there's some desire to cast AAA games as spectacles of untouchable polish whose might cannot be matched by the poor beleaguered indies, but that's not quite true. there's clunk all over, from the interfaces that I just can not get the hang of, to occasional weird animations that are trying to blend together but can't quite stitch it. if all you value is like photo-realistic graphical fidelity, sure? but that's not the total of what I value at all. i happen to like menus which provide relevant information about the thing i am looking at, a bar this game fails to clear on multiple occasions in favor of providing pretty pictures in the menu screen instead.

piled on artifice

i am delighted by the stilted cadence of NPCs. i love the faux-casual dispersal of information like a nervous improv actor trying to work the audience suggestion in. it's like the dramatic reveal before the cut to a commercial break in a TV show (when we had commercial breaks), or an over-emphasized movement on stage for people sitting in the back rows. It's just part of the form, now. It is what it is. great job getting the words "energy surge" out , combat tutorial voice actor. that was an inhuman thing to say, but this is a video game, so it's in its proper place. "Come to study our ways, outlander"? what a delightfully bizarre thing to pretend is normal human interaction, blurb writer! I love it. I'm going to greet my kids with that when they get home from school. You're a treasure.

ok thats everything a AAA game is time for a conclusion

Is this list of qualities damning? To be honest, I don't know. I'm pretty sure I enjoyed myself playing the thing but now I'm questioning myself. Is it slop? I also don't know. I played this stuff for like 90 hours. At some point it became The Thing I Was Playing, which represented a decision I didn't have to actively make about my free time because I could just turn to The Thing I Am Playing. Was every moment of triumph an act of dramatic tension being resolved? Like... Probably, but also, is that why I am playing games? 

I'm against slop. Mark me down as disliking things that have nasty-sounding names. And also, I do a lot of stuff that is mindless and aimless and kills time to get me through the day (I enjoy idle games and incremental games!), so maybe I am slightly pro-slop. I feel enough pressure to be like, a full and complete human being, I'm not gonna monitor my gaming consumption to be sufficiently slopless. I think the experience I had most fully with Horizon 2 was just, "this is some goofy stuff and I love it". That's what I get out of this game with a name I can never type with a straight face, a place to be goofy and bunny-hop up hills to avoid physics sliding me down the rocks. Can games be more than goofy? Sure, of course. Are they morally obligated to be more than that? Of course not. It's neat when it happens. It can be magical. And, robot dinosaurs with lovingly detailed glowing red weak spots aren't going to show up many other places.