Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Liberal Crime Squad

The medium of games - of "electronic interactive entertainment" - is preoccupied with the concept of games being art. Games being CREATED as art, games being PERCEIVED as art, games being CRITICIZED and LAUDED like art. And among the aristocratic class of ludologists, a monarch has been chosen - "Gone Home", a kind and caring queen from a distinguished and proper bloodline. Untained by the blood of the the triple-A commoners, Gone Home has established its credentials with the elite through a combination of eschewed "low tropes" (violence, puzzles, content) and a storyline appealing to the intellectual nobility.

But there is a secret monarch, cloaked in rags, who lurks among them. Unacknowledged, uncrowned, yet true royal blood runs through its veins. Its near-divine bearing is hidden by its common garb, yet one has to simply look upon its face to see its regal status.

That game, the uncrowned emperor of ludonarrativity, is Liberal Crime Squad.

Liberal Crime Squad is a game with a mission and a purpose. LCS seeks to create a world according to the logic of groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Manson Family - a group where individuals who seek change need only to pick up a gun, kick in a door, and shout a proper slogan. It is a world where Violence Works, where charismatic terrorists can turn the tide of public opinion with a well-placed attack and where the lines between "good" and "bad" can easily be drawn based entirely on party lines. Liberal Crime Squad is a game for revolutionaries.

The Character
Liberal Crime Squad begins with a series of character-making questions, where you walk through your life leading up to the point where you begin the struggle against Conservatism. This series includes:
1) Your sex-at-birth (this includes androgynous, and your gender can be changed later).
2) Your childhood, including incidents of punishment and family strife.
3) Your methods of expression - artistic, aggressive, introspective, etc.
4) Your teenage years, including problematic behavior, social judgments and expressions of sexuality.
5) Your plan to take back the country.

I want to tie this back to the Reigning Monarch of Video Games, Gone Home. In Gone Home you go through one teenage girl's journey, discovering political causes and her own sexuality. In Liberal Crime Squad, you go through this every time you play the game. Liberal Crime Squad allows for a huge amount of freedom in your actions and thus in addition to affecting your skills and stats based on prior experience, these questions can also influence how you play the game, or more appropriately how you create the story.

You can play Liberal Crime Squad as a psychopath (as per every other video game), but you can also play it as an idealistic protester, a charismatic visionary, an introverted hacker, an artist, a scholar, a thug, a kidnapper, an assassin, a liar, a thief...Liberal Crime Squad is one of those games that gives you a world and an objective and says "get to it". Your objective is "make the world safe for left-wing politics". How you get there is entirely up to you.

The thing about "games" is that as a medium they offer an unparalleled opportunity to be story CREATORS, not just story EXPERIENCES. Liberal Crime Squad is about crafting your own narrative, starting at birth and working your way towards the struggle for liberation. Your actions and choices are part of that. You might have to kill. You might watch friends die. You might fall in love. You might go to jail. You might be crushed by a wave of public apathy, or you might inspire sweeping legislative changes. Nothing is guaranteed, but everything has a consequence - there's only one save file, and you don't get to decide when it saves.

The Violence

Liberal Crime Squad is an intentionally violent game - not just in the sense that people will die but in the way they die. The game is mostly text, so combat is represented entirely by descriptions of actions and responses. Characters will be maimed, pulverized, stabbed and shot. And they will not die easily - they will bleed out, they will beg, they will cry, they will depart with their mother's names on their lips. What's also different about the violence in LCS is that it is almost never necessary . In addition to intimidation during combat situations (scaring potential enemies off), it's very easy and feasible to get through the entire game without killing anyone by using non-confrontational tactics such as media presence. In fact, in many ways it's EASIER, since it involves committing less crimes.

LCS does not have complicated morals in a direct sense. If you encounter a Conservative, they are an enemy. It doesn't matter if you were mowing down cops with assault rifles, if you encounter a conservative and you don't take the time to scare them off, they're going to throw themselves at you. This is, of course, unrealistic - no matter their party affiliations, people don't behave like that. But there are two relevant places where they do: the first is in the mind of people like the Symbionese Liberation Army. The second is video games. Liberal Crime Squad is like Bioshock Infinite if Bioshock Infinite had any options besides "murder".

If the player has thought even briefly of the world as being "real" in any sense - if they feel any sense of immersion at all - this should really fuck them up. It's one thing to imagine violence being applied to the people you really hate - what if it ended up requiring you to kill every "conservatively-minded" person you met? Would you really feel like you held the moral high ground when that was enough to justify slaughter? Are you okay with the idea of shooting people in the streets for their beliefs, or to support your own?

Did it bother you in The Matrix, when Morpheus justified shooting innocents because it was more important that they potentially be brought out of the computer world than to keep being alive inside it?

Do you like hurting other people?

The World
LCS holds the proud distinction of being one of the few games where gameplay truly changes the world. You see, the "liberalness" of the country is measured on roughly 20 different political points - women's rights, gun control, freedom of speech, and so on. These points are affected by legislation as well as popular referendums. The election of the president and the constituency of congress and the senate are major gameplay features affected by your success at spreading the word of liberalism. As the laws change from conservative to liberal and vice versa, the world changes as well.

For example, Freedom of Speech is essentially abolished at arch-conservative levels; publishing your own newspaper is illegal and leads to raids by the Fahrenheit 451-inspired "firemen". Women's Rights affects how many women you will encounter in roles such as police officer and corporate manager. Civil rights and labor laws affect the status of sweatshop workers you can liberate. Gun Control affects whether or not citizens are armed (although considering your intended actions, they're fully justified in BEING armed for self-defense). Even outside of these things, the likelihood of encountering conservative or liberal characters changes as you spread your philosophy. The world shifts as you play, so that you get a real sense of something happening that many games miss.

The reason this is important is not just "hey, that's neat", but also the sense that you're actually doing this for a goal. You're doing it to reduce military spending and corporate graft, and to improve the lives of the downtrodden and oppressed. You're doing it to create a better world. You might be doing it in horrific ways, but at least there's an overt justification. There's a real, visible goal to systematically work towards. Games like Spec Ops and Bioshock attempt to force moral moments when your goal is basically "you're stuck in a place, try to survive". Liberal Crime Squad doesn't "force" the moment, and it also sets up real stakes for your success and failure.

I think one of the most important parts of the game, from an artistic standpoint, is "nightmare mode". Nightmare Mode is a game mode where the world sets out completely arch-conservative; there is no freedom of speech, all crimes are punished severely, and death squads stalk the streets. It is a world where your struggle is not against mere "right-wing politics" but against an overt Fascist Dictatorship. The methods that in the regular game seemed "distasteful" or "exaggerated" now become necessary - there is no "nice way" to change the world when the state crushes free speech and demonstration. And in many ways, Nightmare Mode isn't as much of an exaggeration as one might think; I mean, we have had actual fascist dictatorships in the world, lest we forget.

One of the problems I had with Bioshock Infinite was the painting of the Vox Populi as being as bad as the Founders. The Vox Populi are an oppressed, enslaved underclass fighting for their freedom, the Founders are slavers with technological superiority who control a flying sky city. The game somehow equates these two groups as being equal. The Vox Populi do not exist in "normal" LCS. The Vox Populi are in Nightmare Mode. They inhabit a state that crushes freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of vote. They inhabit a state that is overtly in love with the idea of slavery. They inhabit a state that they can't even FLEE from, because it's fucking FLYING. And we're supposed to look at these people - trapped, beaten down, cornered - and we're supposed to CONDEMN them?

Liberal Crime Squad doesn't condemn them. Liberal Crime Squad knows what they're dealing with.

Final Note: The Problem
That's not to say LCS is perfect. There is one major problem I have with it, and that is the relative lack of agency on the part of your subordinates. Obviously it would be very annoying to manage a game where every individual member of your group has their own desires and goals separate from yours, but there's a reason why I'm picking this.In LCS, you have a skill called "seduction". Seduction can be used on anyone, regardless of sex or preference ("preference" doesn't really exist in LCS). If you date someone long enough without them getting tired of you and breaking it off, they become your "love-slave" (game's words).

Now, once again this goes back to the game's origins, with people like Patty Hearst or the Manson Family's female components. There is a precedent for people like that developing inexplicably devoted lovers willing to do anything for the cause. But it's also troubling because it's the only method by which "love" is expressed. There is no way for someone to fall in love and become an "accomplice" or a "co-conspirator" or an "ally". If someone falls in love with you, they are your love-slave, and nothing short of your death will cause them to leave the movement. In a game about liberation and freedom (esp. women's liberation) this is basically inexcusable. I don't think it ruins the rest of the game but I refuse to allow it to pass without notice.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Failure States: Understanding Ludonarrative Dissonance

As games stumble through their gawky, misguided adolescence in their journey to maturity, they are forced to deal with many of the same lessons that regular human adolescents are forced to learn.

The most important lesson is failure. It is a lesson that many games have yet to learn.

There is a feeling for people who have been through trauma. Car accidents are probably the most common source of this feeling; the most likely for someone such as an unaware adolescent to experience. It is the experience of a mistake that has been made and cannot be undone. Repaired, perhaps. Forgiven, perhaps. But never erased. Never removed. And people who have experienced that state, whether they were the cause of tragedy or the victim of it, do not easily forget it.

It is the state of failure. It is the state wherein one realizes one's vulnerability, the fragility of one's shell. Rather, it is the state where the childhood feeling of invulnerability is abolished. It is the state where one realizes that things can happen that cannot un-happen. It is the lifted shield of juvenile delusion and the exposure to responsibility and consequence.

And games have yet to experience it, to embrace it. Games fear it because games see themselves as the shield. How can it be their job to create this sensation of weakness when the purpose of games is to escape from responsiblity, to avoid consequence? Games save your data so that when you stumble you can get back up. Games give you safety harnesses and airbags and insurance policies so no matter what tumble you take you can get back up without learning anything from it.

This is fine for games that don't aspire to be anything but a fun, distracting experience.

But now we're making games that try to be grown-up, aren't we? We're making games that aspire to something greater. Games like The Last Of Us, which supposedly tell the story of survivors fighting the odds, with death and loss happening on their journey. These are deaths that are meant to evoke emotion, not simply to be the loss of an AI character. These are deaths we are meant to care about.

But that death happens in a safe place, doesn't it? It happens where the player can't touch it. "It's not my fault" says the player. And if by some miracle a death happens that IS the player's fault, the game shrugs. "Well, we'll just give you another go at that one. That one doesn't count". The threat of death is reduced to an inconvenience for the majority of the game and then they attempt to draw emotion from it when it happens outside of the player's control. 

Games like this are the equivalent of an adult giving a child a bike with training wheels, then later shoving them to the ground. "Why didn't you LEARN from that?" they cry, ignoring the fact that there was no logic or reason to it, nothing that could be avoided or improved upon. Games like that control everything and berate the player for doing nothing.

This is not to say that there are not games with consequence and hair-trigger decisions; Hitman: Blood Money is a perfect example. A person playing Hitman morally is forced to make difficult decisions. Every move and mistake could result in needless death of innocents; the Hitman's ultimate goal is to kill his targets with as little collateral as possible. A person trying to be invested in the process is under heavy pressure, then, as a single mistake could lead to a compromised identity, a witness that needs to be eliminated, a team of innocent police officers that must be gunned down. Failure in Hitman carries moral weight to it because it complicates the situation and it has consequences.

It's also not entirely fair to blame games alone for this. Movies have suckled viewers on the concept of consequence-free stories for decades, so much so that films like Chinatown and shows like Game of Thrones stand out simply for not doing that. But what's different between movies and games is that games are interactive, and thus failure can be completely natural rather than forced. And if we care about evoking emotions - that is, emotions other than vicarious triumph and saccharine attachment - then we must look to that interactivity for ways to accomplish it. Consequence is easy, if you shape the game right from the start.

Sometimes we must simply accept that we are fragile, that we can be broken, and that others share this. Sometimes we must learn that the world isn't as safe as we'd like to think. This does not have to be taught through complex symbolism or strained metaphors. Just the realization that every action we do, or do not do, affects the world.

And if gamers don't truly believe in the worlds they inhabit, why on earth would we consider games art?