Monthly Archives: July 2020

One More Turn

The first time I played Civilization V on my computer I ended up pulling an all-nighter. While in college. When I didn’t have homework. It was not the best of life choices.

But it was a lot of fun.

I dug into Civilization VI last night, not heeding the various other games I’ve been meaning to play, and very nearly stayed up all night again, but, as I have grown as a person, I did not. Game’s a lotta fun though.

Through it all, though, I kept telling myself “just one more turn,” which is the mantra of all who have fallen prey to Civilization’s siren song. Naturally, I found myself asking why.

The central tenet of Civilization is this: You have a civilization (based on real ones in history, like the Kongo, Sumerians, and French), and, starting from the Ancient Era, you slowly build it into a magnificent empire. You can befriend or betray rival factions, build up your cities, and try for one of a few different forms of victory (domination, cultural, science, or religious). Naturally, your plans will have plans if you want to be able to succeed; ensuring a science victory may require some mild warmongering along the way.

All of this takes time. It takes turns to produce builders or soldiers, turns to produce wonders of the world, and turns to improve your cities. More likely than not, you’re gonna have several balls in the air, with ships being built at Uruk while the Colossus is under construction at Bergen; all while you wait for your missionaries to start exerting some influence on the city-state of Valetta. What this means in practice, is that one turn you’ll finish a project, start a new one, and two turns later the next one will come to fruition.

Just gotta hang on for one more turn.

The particular genius of this is that your plan keeps changing, depending on how things work, and you want to keep that Plan going. Interrupting it would be such a shame.

Unlike many other games, there’s not much in the way of natural stopping points. There are no big boss fights or chapter ends, just a long steady slog towards victory, which in this game can easily take hundreds upon hundreds of turns. Stopping the game means interrupting, more so than in The Sims where the lack of goal allows for a more freeform style. In Civ there is a goal to all that you do, and you’re working towards it at all times. You don’t want to lose track of where you are on in your machinations. There’s also the sunk-cost fallacy, where I’ve already spent as long as I have working towards my goal, might as well stick it out to see where it goes.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. Civilization is a great game that’s hard to put down because of how all its mechanics all come together into a unified whole. And I really want to win this game, so, less time blog posting, more time civilizing.

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Immersion

Reading the Wikipedia summary of a book or tv show is not the same as reading or watching it. A movie’s script is an inherently unfinished product until it is produced and brought to its fullest form. It makes a certain amount of sense; you want the full experience of Ulysses? Read the book itself, not the CliffNotes. Inception is a trip, but it’s a trip that works best when you’re watching it in full. The reasoning behind this seems quite obvious: for something written, there’s a particularity given to the prose that the writer uses to evoke whatever it is they’re going for; visual media like television and film use the camera to draw the viewer’s attention to certain places, with every aspect of the story tailored to the audience’s experience.

Things get weird when media gets more interactive.

In a book, things are written to be read a certain way, and unless you’re reading it, uh, backwards, you’re experiencing it the way it was extended. Sitting in a theater, you’re watching a movie as it’s meant to be, from start to finish, no distractions, and with the audio and the visuals just right.

But what about when you’re watching a play? Sure, you’re supposed to be watching the stage, but where on the stage? If it’s in the round you’re seeing a completely different point of view as someone on the other side! And what if they decide to interact with the audience? Furthermore, there are elements of stagecraft that draw the audience in, things that are designed to be seen, and experienced, in person. There’s no way a description of the furniture disappearing into the stage in Fun Home can compare to watching it happen in front of you. It’s arguable that the audience’s own ability to view the stage through their own eyes (and not that of the director’s camera or writer’s prose) is part of the narrative work of a stage performance. The liminal space occupied by the actors and the audience becomes a magic circle during the performance.

Being there, having to turn your head to follow the action, is a part of watching a play that a recording doesn’t quite capture, filtered as it is through a camera crew. It’s a small thing, but not having to physically turn your head to see what’s going on removes a small part of the interaction that’s part of the medium.

Kinda like not playing a video game.

In the same way that a well-made play uses that stage to its fullest, so too does a video game. Video games with a focus on narrative tell stories not just through non-interactive cutscenes, but by making players actually play the story. The effect of this, when well executed, isn’t found in other media. The Last of Us and BioShock both take place in the aftermath of cataclysmic disasters, and you, the player explore the spaces left behind. There you’ll find notes and audio recordings that slowly paint a narrative of the people who lived in the place you’re exploring, leaving you to piece together a story about what happened. It’s completely optional, you don’t have to pick up any of the notes and can quite easily go through the whole game without collecting any if you choose. But by interacting with you’re given some background that sits in the back of your mind.

Then, of course, there is making you play through the story. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has you building a team of mercenaries and staffing them at your base. You might not remember them all by name, but you, the player, recruit them all and put them where they go. They’re your staff. When a late plot development has a number of your soldiers turn against you, you, the player, must kill them before they can do more damage. It is an… unpleasant experience. Not all of them are hostile, many of them are accepting, and you are tasked with shooting them in cold blood. The player is not allowed a passive position in the development, they have to take part in the carnage. The guilt that weighs on Venom Snake weighs too on the player. Sure, you can watch a play-through of the game, or even read a rundown on the plot, but not actively taking part in the action removes a level of immersion intended by the designers. Like watching a play on screen, passively watching a video game doesn’t confer the experience in full.

At the end of the day, something that’s created to exist in a specific medium ought to be experienced in that medium. But in doing so, it does become something else, doesn’t it (compare a stage production to a movie adaptation)? Different stories work different ways, but to experience them at all is a joy.

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Theater On A Screen

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to see Hamilton back in 2015 when it first made the move to Broadway. This was well before the soundtrack was released, but after its run at the Public. I was a TA for a summer film program and part of the thing was for the students to go see shows. They needed volunteers and, as someone trained since childhood to never turn down an opportunity to get some culture, I volunteered to go see this history musical called Hamilton (a friend of mine was also very insistent on me volunteering when he’d heard which play it was).

The play was dope. Yes, it plays fast and loose with history and, yes, glosses over historical issues of racism and slavery (like basically every other recounting of the founding of the US), but, arguably, that’s not the point. The genius of Hamilton is how it reinterprets a very familiar story: rather than the tried-and-true story of white dudes in fancy outfits, we’ve a cast almost entirely consisting of people-of-color telling the story with songs that borrow more from hip-hop and rap than Sondheim. The result is a story that feels incredibly fresh and fun, while also making a biography of Alexander Hamilton accessible and, somehow, badass. In addition, it’s an ode to the idea of America, more so than the actuality, an idealism that there was room for in 2015.

Naturally, I wanted to watch it again, and wanted to be able to watch it with some friends so I could talk to them about it and dig into it, but Hamilton tickets cost money and need to be purchased well in advanced, stuff that, as a college student, wasn’t really on the table. It’s frustrating, because Hamilton, a musical about being young, scrappy, and hungry, is effectively out of reach for the young, scrappy, and hungry. Even now, it’s hard for me to set aside $100 for an event months away.

So of course I’m super excited that the recording of Hamilton from 2016 is finally available to watch online. It means I can finally recommend it to people without the financial subtext. It means my parents and friends all over can watch it and we can all talk about it and get into it. Finally.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that the majority of plays and musical is out of reach unless you’re moneyed and living in New York. Most all of the theatre I’ve been to has been through rushing for discount tickets or having a friend with connections. Fun Home is a terrific show, but one I was only able to see because a friend won the ticket lottery and gave me his spot. The only reason I saw Vietgone is because they offered discount tickets for those under thirty. Both of these shows are fantastic and ones I wish I could share with friends the same way I do a good book or movie. Sure, I have the script for Vietgone, but letting a friend read it isn’t quite the same as getting to watch it.

I will admit that some is lost in the transfer from stage to screen; much of what makes theater work is the shared liminal space that contributes to the effect of the story (my experience watching Fun Home wouldn’t quite work on screen), in the same way that a video play-through of a video game lacks the experiential quality a good game has.

There’s a larger point to be made about the experiential nature of stories (once again, theater and video games are, oddly, very alike in this), but that’s for another day. At the moment, though, a little piece of pop-culture just got a whole lot more accessible. And that’s a good thing.

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One Hundred and Ten

Hey, how’s it going? Today is, by my count, day one hundred and ten of quarantine here in New York. At least since the day that I went into lockdown, stopped going into work, and have been in relative isolation within my apartment.

For those of y’all keeping track at home, that’s almost four months now.

Haven’t left my neighborhood in near on four months, haven’t gone on the subway in the same amount of time. Still going outside, though, but probably not getting near enough sunlight as I ought (but then again, sunlight is awful and hot). COVID-19 shows no real signs of abating — if anything, it’s gotten worse Stateside. Though the hotspots have since moved away from New York towards other parts of the US, I’ve little doubt things are gonna flare up again here in s short time.

There’s a lot of frustration with all this, of course. I’ve done my part, sure would be nice if everyone else did theirs too and life could go back to ‘normal’ at some point, but, here we are.

I suppose thinking too much about that would lead to this post being far more morose than I’d like; it’s not pessimism, just a wary eye on the potential future. Perhaps one tinged with the tiredness that’s resulted from the relative monotony of quarantine.

But hey, it’s better than getting sick. So, there’s that.

Anyway. Been playing a lot of Destiny 2 finally. There’s actual plot in this one, which is remarkable, while still being a lotta fun (seriously, the core gameplay loop of Destiny is so gratifying). I’m savoring the last season of She Ra and The Princesses of Power because it’s wonderful and I wanna make it last. The Last of Us Part Two was terrific; beautiful and heart-wrenching. I’ve on a post on it somewhere in me, but I might need another play-through and certainly need more time for that game to digest.

Here’s to another week. Maybe it’s time to re-watch Pacific Rim.

Maybe it’s always time to watch Pacific Rim.

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