Thursday, October 16, 2014

Analysis: Wing Commander

First released in September of 1990, Chris Robert's Wing Commander series was both traditional and novel, combining a classic "space ace" concept with innovations in storytelling and worldbuilding. Drawing influence from the Pacific Theater of World War 2 as well as more contemporary works like Top Gun, this memorable and influential series certainly has a lot of concepts to explore.

Set in the distant future, Wing Commander takes place during a war between the Terran Confederation and the Kilrathi, a race of imperialistic, militant cat-people. The player takes the role of Christopher "Maverick" Blair; in the first game, he is fresh out of the academy, assigned to the carrier Tiger's Claw. The series follows Maverick's actions through the war and beyond. The earlier games generally follow a more militarized pattern, focusing on missions and patrols assigned by your commanding officer. In later games, as the war changes, your objectives are more based on pursuing individual goals, uncovering plots, and so on.

The Terran Confederation as depicted in most of the games is a relatively progressive society; pilots from all over the world are represented on the Tiger's Claw, and female pilots are common as well. While the statistics still skew towards white men (6 of 9 pilots in WC1 are white, and 7 of 9 are male), there's at least a clear attempt at inclusion (which makes sense for the setting). The uniforms worn by pilots are the same for men and women - a sensible WW2-inspired look for dress uniforms, and a relatively goofier-looking flight suit. Combat is taken seriously and combatants are treated with respect; the occasional exception, like Todd "Maniac" Marshall, is done intentionally, to contrast with the more serious standard of the rest of the cast. In terms of design, Wing Commander is basically what I want out of games: I want combat to be taken seriously, and "the way characters are designed" should be part of that seriousness.

Wing Commander is not a realistic simulation of spaceflight, but it is a relatively consistent one. Space combat happens in a certain way, at certain ranges, and everything about the game's setting is designed around that. As such, it is believable, but not realistic. Of course, it was designed this way for a reason, and that reason is "you can't have exciting dogfights in a realistic space game". Wing Commander was designed to be WW2 in space, just like Star Wars was, and that manifests itself in the fact that dogfighting in WC is heavily reliant on guns as opposed to long-range missile exchanges. The depths of space serve as a stand-in for the Pacific Ocean, with planets serving as its "islands".

By its nature, Wing Commander is a "space ace" narrative. You are playing a single pilot. You are going to get the most kills. You are going to be the biggest contributor to the war effort. You are going to make or break every mission. In that sense, Wing Commander is a classic PvE setup: your enemies are numerous and incompetent. The player's ability to "beat the odds" is artificially inflated because the odds in question are meaningless; it doesn't matter if they outnumber you ten to one if they can barely fly in a straight line. And of course that incompetence isn't limited to your enemies; your allies are also pretty bad at flying, so that you can feel awesome for flying a thousand times better than them. In the land of blind men, the one-eyed player-character is king. This sort of forced imbalance compromises the setting itself, and it also makes the player's victories feel weird if they stop and think about it. A smaller number of more-skilled pilots would have been just as challenging without making the player feel like they're picking on pilots far inferior to themselves.

However, there are certain levels of "consistency" that still exist in the series. For example, you're "legitimately" flying the same fighters as everyone else; you don't have advantages in terms of your statistics, number of missiles, or anything like that. You've got shields and armor on your ship, and it's the same level as everyone else who flies that ship. The only difference between you and everyone else is your flying ability. This is a marked difference to something like Call of Duty, where your superhuman ability to absorb bullets is (a) never mentioned and (b) completely vital to your ability to complete missions.

WC1 even included "failure" as a gameplay concept, with a webbed sequence of missions that would change based on your success or failure in a given area. This was abandoned in WC2, when it was discovered that players were generally more likely to reload and try again than to accept a bad result. Another important failure-related gameplay feature was the ability to eject from your craft, thus living to fight another day (unless something bad happened to you post-ejection). These mechanics helped "defeat" to feel like a more natural part of the setting, instead of a thing that should be ignored and erased ("not canon", as it were).

In the first game, morality is simple; the Kilrathi are the enemy. They are not just an enemy, they are the enemy: an implacable, non-negotiating race of super-warriors who have the darkest possible plans for Earth. There is zero reason to feel remorse for killing a Kilrathi, and many reasons to feel good about it. Like orcs in most fantasy, the Kilrathi is a remorseless aggressor who can only be stopped with violence, thus justifying a gameplay scheme based entirely around killing.

In WC2 the idea is introduced that not all Kilrathi are like that; a defector Kilrathi, nicknamed "Hobbes", joins your crew and flies alongside you. In addition, there is a revolt in one of the Kilrathi colonies, suggesting that not all the Kilrathi support their totalitarian government. These simple additions transformed the Kilrathi from "100% merciless killers" to "99% merciless killers", a change that warranted some introspection. The game certainly addresses the issue, as Blair begins to question his own attitude towards the Kilrathi and the potential that peace could be reached.


One of the more troubling twists in the game is the fact that Hobbes turns out to be a traitor. While this is not by itself a bad plot twist, in context Hobbes is the only friendly Kilrathi that exists. Obviously a few other ones exist, but Hobbes is the only one that the player ever sees or talks to. As such, the ratio shifts from the Kilrathi being "99% merciless killers" back to "100% merciless killers, and also 1% duplicitous backstabbers".

Wing Commander is a game where you never actually command any wings and that legitimately bothers me. It bothers me because if you strip away the "space ace" stuff you have a pretty solid premise: a roster of well-characterized pilots fighting a serious war against an aggressor. The setting is compromised by the need to make the player feel better than everyone else, and if you took that element away and turned it into something more like X-COM, you'd have a better product overall.

Okay, done? Great. I just explained everything I feel about video games in one accessibly-written article.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

KISS: "Gamer Culture"

Keep ISimple, Stupid:

A concise analysis of Gamer Culture

Gamer Identity is a concept built in opposition; which is to say, without societal distaste for gaming, "gamers" would not exist. People enjoy movies casually, and while there are people who are dedicated to the art of filmography, "film buff" and "gamer" do not have the same connotations. Gamer Identity exists because gamers were treated like outcasts and weirdos, and as a result were forced to socialize primarily with other outcasts and weirdos.

However, it is the year 2014, and for the most part things are different now. If a gamer is treated like an outcast and a weirdo now, it's probably because the are an outcast and a weirdo, not because they're a gamer. Yet you can still see a great deal of bitterness at the old wounds; one of the most notable ways this manifests itself is in hatred for "fake geeks". "Who do they think they are", the argument goes, "to try to get in on gaming as an identity without having to endure that outcast status?"

Well, I grew up in the 90s, and I was part of that "original caste" of gamers. I was a person who played games and was treated like an outsider, although not necessarily in that order. And the thing about it is, I got past it. I came out the other side. I watch people who are what I used to be, and all I can wait for them to do is either wake up or destroy themselves.

The thing is, ultimately, there is only one concept that "gamerdom" stands for: the right to not be made fun of for fucking around in an electronic toy.

Take everything you know about GamerGate and run it through that filter.

Gamers think SJWs are "too sensitive". In reality, the gamer wants to preserve their right to not be made fun of for fucking around in an electronic toy. This issue is, to them, a core concept of who they are, and yet somehow they believe that other people are too sensitive. Not them. Other people.

You know, I'd love to go on about this, but there's really nothing else to it. It doesn't matter if gamers invoke "journalistic freedom" or "artistic integrity", ultimately every discussion is going to turn back to the right to not be made fun of for fucking around in an electronic toy. And hey, "gamergaters" aren't the only ones who really care about that right! Lots of people do. Lots of people get upset if you make fun of them for fucking around in an electronic toy. It's basically a prerequisite for being the kind of person who spends their life fucking around with an electronic toy.

Well, personally, I'd argue that maybe you should grow the fuck up, you huge stupid baby, but a more constructive alternative is to try to understand what you have in common with your SJW opponents so you can see that you're actually not that different. Both of you care about "artistic freedom", to an extent. Both of you participate in a hobby where you do immoral, stupid things and justify it because it's "just a game". Both of you are basically idiots trying to pretend like you know what big people are talking about.


but no seriously grow the fuck up