Monthly Archives: April 2020

D&D, But Online

I’m a big fan of tabletop RPGs. Probably because it’s all the fun of storytelling coupled with the inherent zaniness of improv comedy. Imagine, you get a good group together who feed off of each other’s energy and are all too willing to “yes-and” off of whatever random plot or character development another player throws out. Stories spiral into ridiculousness, while still maintaining the cohesive shared fantasy of a mutually constructed narrative. Of course, it helps to have a Game Master who’s able to roll with the punches and keep the story going no matter the curveballs the players toss out there.

Virtual tabletop has been a thing for a long, long time, and with the pandemic preventing any sort of game sessions in meatspace, more and more people are turning to services like Discord and Roll20 for their games.

And by ‘people’ I mean me.

I’ve long been a proponent of tabletop games — RPG or board — being played in person due to the very specific sort of chemistry that emerges from people hanging out together. Yes, there’s the part of communication that’s done through hand gestures and facial expressions, but there’s also the knowledge that everyone around the table is doing the same thing, at the same time, with the same people. And side conversations too, those are fun. When playing games over Discord and only hearing someone’s voice, interactions change.

Of course, there are some parts of those interactions that change because they could only be done through computer-mediated communication. There’s the obvious stuff, like how the multiple voice channels that Discord offers provides a way for the GM to have a private conversation with a player. It’s a simulation of going off into a room for a beat in real life, and certainly does take on its own form of formality when heralded by the sound of someone leaving and reentering the voice channel.

That Discord also offers text communication allows for a second conversation to be happening alongside the game, although in my experience it’s mostly us sending funny gifs and memes around that relate to whatever’s happening in-story. This creates a bizarre record of the adventure, though one that’s done more through an association game than anything else (for example: dumplings, training montages, the Hatch from Lost, Ackbar declaring it to be a trap, and Eric Andre demanding to be let in). They may not affect the story or the gameplay that much, but they provide a bit of color commentary on the proceedings.

With actual gameplay taking place via a system like Roll20, however, the very nature of playing changes. Skill rolls are an intrinsic part of most any tabletop RPG, they’re what determines how well a character does something. Roll high on a Persuasion Check, chances are, you persuaded them. Roll low on an attack and that’s a swing and a miss. Technically, you can roll the dice on anything, so long as you can justify the skill you’re using (Animal Handling to corral a group of children, for example). Of course, in-person, you have to declare it, which can mean having to calm down a very talkative table trying to decide on the course of action.

When all your rolls can be virtual through a website and show up in the logs, though, things can work differently. After all, click the “Persuasion” button on your character sheet and the roll happens. It’s all there on the screen, the dice, the results, and the stat that was rolled. The GM can ignore it or uphold it, but, point is, it happens without the need to tell everyone “Shut up, I’m rolling to Intimidate!”

When it comes down to it, I think I’m less intrigued by the way it changes gameplay than by how it changes the interactions of players. Often we look at computer-mediated communication as a lesser shadow of in-person dialogue, but I think it really opens up a different means of getting points across. You can’t drop a gif into a conversation in real life like you do online, but that doesn’t make it a less valid form of communication, does it? Maybe after this pandemic we’ll have a better appreciation for all the ways of speaking.

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More Thoughts on The Sims

If you’re wondering what I’ve been doing during quarantine, the answer is still playing The Sims. Along with games like Death Stranding (terrific, prescient, heartbreaking) and Jedi Outcast (gotta love old school LucasArts), watching Kim’s Convenience (so good!) and  trying to build a Singaporean kopitiam with LEGO bricks.

And cooking, because, of course, but not baking because ovens are unknowable creations that worry me and lack the finer control offered by a stovetop.

Anyway.

The Sims.

After learning last week to slow down and enjoy the process of the game, I thought I’d try and wonder why this game is so darn engrossing. It’s a game about nothing, insofar as everyday life is about nothing. There’s no real goal. Which, isn’t that unusual these days. A lot of big games have the postgame: After you finish the game you can still wander around the world and do any side-quests you’ve left. In Death Stranding this has me running around completing deliveries and trying to max everything out (and also build a network of ziplines for maximum effectiveness). I’ve beat the game and all, but there’s still more open-ended fun to get done. In Pokémon, I’ve spent untold hours catching ’em all and cultivating the perfect team to take on my brother. It’s plenty of fun to one around Venus in Destiny shooting Fallen with a friend. In all these cases, the game is effectively done, but you’re still free to mess around.

The Sims is like that from the get-go, with any and all goals being of your own devising. You can do whatever you want, tell whatever story you want with them. It’s a game I’ve been playing for over seventeen years, and somehow it still hasn’t gotten old. Why?

I suppose on one level there is the fantasy element of the game. When you’re a kid, getting to engage in a simulacrum of adult life, having a job and earning money and falling in love and going on vacations and the like. Plus you get to design houses and furnish it with whatever you want or can afford (and if you can’t afford it, a cheat code can take care of that). As an adult, there’s still a level of wish-fulfillment. Having a career where you can get promoted and owning your own house sounds like sheer fantasy to this Millennial living though his second ‘once-in-a-generation’ economic crash. There’s a very mundane gratification to picking out a job for a Sim and then completing simple self-improvement tasks to get promoted. Then get money and use that money to build a sprawling underground complex beneath an unassuming house.

Maybe some parts are more fantastical than others.

But I think that therein lies much of what makes it work so well. The Sims offers a mechanism for you to set your own goal and then, later, achieve it. The game is an avenue for a sense of accomplishment, of having done something. It’s like doing a Strike in Destiny or polishing off a side quest in Assassin’s Creed, except this go ’round it’s whatever I want it to be. Perhaps it’s the illusion of control that’s so attractive, of living a life where whatever you want to happen can happen. And then when it does, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

It helps that these sorts of things tend to be awfully fun. Like befriending the Grim Reaper. Or building underground bunkers.

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Life Sped Up

So a bunch of The Sims 4’s expansion packs are on sale right now, and with not much else to do, I figured I might as well jump back into one of my favorite computer games.

I’ve been playing The Sims for over eighteen years now, making it easily one of the longest-running and consistent franchises in my stable (The Legend of Zelda came and went, and I got into Final Fantasy late). So what is it about this game that’s able to hold my attention through my preteen years to my late-twenties?

The Sims is an unusual game in that there is no real goal. There is no win state, nor is there a lose state. You can’t beat the simulation of everyday life, nor can you really lose it. Sure, you can have a super-successful, happy Sim with a great job, lots of money, and string of lovers; but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve won. Nor does a completely miserable Sim who starves do death describe a loss. The thing about the game is you can do whatever you want in it: live out a fantasy of life on a beach, or embody a malevolent deity who exists only to punish those miserable creatures.

The game’s a sandbox, one that invites you to do whatever you want.

It’s also something I think I may have started playing wrong.

Which sounds like a paradox — how can a game with no rules be one you play wrong?

I’ve set my own goal (I’m going for the Black Widow achievement: have a Sim outlive five spouses) after which I’m going to continue the multigenerational dynasty and stuff. So it’s not the most sketched out plan, but it’s one nonetheless. In the process of chasing it, however, I feel like I’m missing the ride for the destination.

The Sims has a speed setting that lets you hasten time along so you’re not waiting ages for your Sim to get back from work, or wake up, or finish cooking. It’s useful, since some things take a while and the ability to abbreviate them leaves more time for the more interesting stuff, which is whatever you want it to be. Thing is, I, of late, have found myself playing the game almost always at the highest speed, rushing things along to get my Sims to the point where I wanted them to get.

Then I left it at normal speed while I grabbed something from across the room, and quickly realized I’d been missing out on the silly minutiae of The Sims that makes the game so charming. Things like Sims babbling in Simlish, or watching them try and fail at basic tasks, or even one of the Sim’s odd habit of taking naps in the hot tub when there’s a comfy bed right there. There’s entertainment to be had from achieving the goals you’ve set in your mind for these Sims, but then there’s also the fun of just watching them go about their lives, kinda like an ant farm but with more cooking accidents.

I’ve a lot of time on my hands these days, what with the whole quarantine thing still being in effect. Maybe it’s about time I slowed down The Sims and enjoyed the process of playing it a bit more. There’s a nugget in there about living life, I’m sure, but hey.

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What Day Is It?

I kid. I’m mostly sure it’s Saturday.

Mostly.

Kinda wild that another week has already gone by. Couldn’t tell you what I’ve been doing, just because it’s the thing where days tend to blur together, kinda like how summer days used to back when you were a teenager only with less time spent going outside and more existential dread. Fun times.

I’ve been doing stuff, to be sure. Reading, cooking, supposedly writing; stuff like that. Been playing video games too, and not just playing Star Wars Battlefront II while listening to podcasts, either (though certainly a lot of that).

I’m a huge fan of game maker Hideo Kojima. His Metal Gear Solids are truly singular in how wildly bonkers they are and with how committed they are to their bits. They’re games about nanomachine-enhanced soldiers, using ketchup as fake blood, and the ramifications of mutually assured nuclear destruction. The second game is a serious exploration of meme theory and the permeation of culture into a person’s psyche and their need to act it out wrapped up in a story involving clones, a roller-skating bomb man, and giant mechs. Trust me when I say these games are ridiculous and thoughtful at the same time, sometimes spinning between the two ends in a matter of minutes.

Death Standing is his latest game, one I’ve been eagerly waiting for since it was announced. The game’s borderline nonsensical, but it’s so committed to its nonsense that it somehow makes sense. I’ve talked about it before on this blog, about running deliveries in an isolated, disparate, post-apocalyptic America (and how that’s oddly prescient given where we are now).

I’m over seventy hours into the game, which is testament to how much time I’ve on my hands these days, but also pretty impressive since it’s a game I’ve only been playing with my girlfriend so it’s on her, too. Somehow, this plot involving stillborn fetuses being able to bridge the gap between life and death has just gotten weirder as it’s gone on, but it’s a game so sure of itself you can’t help but to get sucked into its melodrama and want to come along for the ride. It helps that the game’s central themes are so clearly on its sleeve; Death Stranding isn’t a game about death and life so much as it is one about the connections between people and a meditation on ways that people stay connected — like the internet. And then there’s Mads Mikkelsen playing, well, it’s almost a spoiler to say who he is, but he just adds to the madness in a fantastic way.

I’m someone who has trouble sitting still. Binging movies and tv is hard for me, since I have this antsy need to be doing something. So video games are a wonderful diversion for me, as they’re a medium where I feel like I’m taking an active part in stuff. And I’m so glad that there are games like Death Stranding to occupy my time, the sort of art (yes, art) that’s so specific and singular and fills me with joy.

See you in seven days, which should be Saturday again.

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