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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

And All Shall Be Well: Fallen London and The Allure of the Un-Fun

and all shall be well and all shall be [munch slurp chomp] shall be well and [gulp crunch gurgle] all manner of things shOH HELLO FRIEND I didn’t see you there. I was just so absorbed in my meal. I’ve been so ravenous lately. So hungry. Like I’ll never be full ever again. Let me light some more candles, we need more candles don’t you think? More light.


That’s better. Ah, it’s actually fitting that you should catch me at my supper! Because tonight I want to talk about a game called Fallen London, and a particularly frustrating piece of content within the game. I want to talk a little bit, too, about our idea of “fun” in games and how a game experience designed to make the player miserable fits into our ideas about what a game is.


Why should this be relevant to my meal, you ask?


Well, eating upsetting things seems to be a major theme in Fallen London and its companion game Sunless Sea, in which you may (will) end up eating the crew of your boat. It fits with the setting’s overall cosmic horror aesthetic. Consuming things that lead to you becoming less and less human is a pretty fascinating running idea for a game trying to do cosmic horror effectively, particularly since so much cosmic horror has traditionally involved glimpsing the unspeakable. It adds a whole new sense to the mix and all the horror of taking something into yourself that slowly changes you into something less (or more) than human.


And this is nowhere more apparent than in the currently-on-hiatus storyline called Seeking Mr Eaten’s Name. Yes, “Eaten.” It’s in this content, I think, that we can see purely refined one of the most interesting aspects of Fallen London: the game gives you the opportunity to do things that are bad for you, things that will result in a negative gameplay experience, which the game clearly spells out as bad for you... and then you do them anyway. This is a fascinating horror experience and, like the experience offered in The Last Of Us, presents a kind of game difficulty outside of what we’ve culturally accepted as valid for games. It’s a kind of difficulty that simply isn’t fun.



Now, Fallen London is primarily a narrative focused game, a game that runs on the primarily text based game system Storynexus. The backstory of the game is that midway through the 19th century, London was stolen by bats, in two senses--first, in that it was literally dragged into the darkness by a vast swarm of bats, into an extraplanar lightless space called the Neath, and second in the sense that it was taken due to a deal between the queen of England and a bunch of capitalist space bat outer gods. The city of London was sold to space bats in return for the life of the Prince Consort Albert.


London has since been warped and reworked around an entity called the Bazaar, an alien being served by these capitalist space bats who are known as the Masters of the Bazaar.


One of the things you find out, eventually, is that there have been five cities in total stolen this way. London is the fifth; there will be two more after London. Why? We’re not entirely sure at this point. The evil Outer Gods that now rule the city are getting something out of this but what exactly they’re getting is a little nebulous. Nevertheless, there’s a long history here of rulers of various empires making deals with the space bat capitalists, frequently in order to save a loved one, that resulted in major cities being dragged into the dark in return for the life of the loved one (who are usually returned in horribly warped form, because that’s the kind of story we’re in).


And long ago, one Master delayed this millennial, cosmic plot. For centuries, the Bazaar’s plans were thwarted. As punishment, this unkillable god was eaten alive and thrown down a well, his name erased from reality itself.


As a Seeker, you attempt to uncover this forbidden name. In doing so, you will sacrifice everything you are, and in the end you will fail. It’s a hopeless, pointless, self destructive quest.


This content has traditionally been sort of sectioned off from the rest of the game, because it’s all a very, very bad idea. Everything you do in SMEN is lengthy, tedious, frustrating, and expensive. It will cost your sanity, your looks, your soul, your wife, your earthly possessions including a bunch of the rarest items in the game, cut your stats in half, twice, and eventually it might cost you your humanity as well. Most of the storyline requires extensive, tedious, and thematically gruesome grinding. You have to lose your soul no less than seven times as part of a twisted ritual, you have to ritualistically commit suicide seven times, including hurling yourself into a well filled with glass splinters and drowning before bleeding out. The final piece of content to be released before the plug was pulled required weeks of grinding and, as noted earlier, some of the rarest items in the game, items that I don’t even have yet despite playing for months. The whole content is pitched from the start as something that will make you unhappy and the game experience seems largely to carry that through. It’s deliberately grueling and miserable. Even without the game breaking bugs (more on that later) it’s not an experience that you can describe as, you know, fun.


But… does fun actually matter that much to begin with?


I don’t think this is necessarily a question that’s quite as interesting outside of the weird bottle world of gaming culture as it is now, in 2016. One of the biggest and weirdest notions that gamers seem to have developed is that Games Must Be Fun. I see where this is coming from in the sense that this is what historically games have been, but it’s incredibly limited, and I can’t help but feel that there’s gotta be a way we can explore the potential of this medium outside a restriction to simplistically positive affective experiences.


This to me is like saying that you shouldn’t have a still shot in a film (“It’s a MOVIE! Why aren’t things MOVING??”) or you must only have humor in comics (“It’s right in the name!”) or if something isn’t new it doesn’t count as a novel (“Standard pagination? Chapter titles?? Character arcs??? There’s nothing “novel” about this SJW bullshit!”).


I get why this makes intuitive sense but it is, nevertheless, wrong, and it only appears right because we’re in a state where the medium is stunted. To expand the example of comics from earlier, comics time and time again have had particular qualities foisted upon them despite their wide ranging formal possibilities. I think it’s significant that Scott McCloud positioned comics as a series of defined formal qualities rather than a series of defined affective experienced or even defined content experiences. While formalism has its own issues, we can look at this and see that McCloud is accomplishing certain things with this structure: he’s able by this method to explore how comics cross the entire breadth of potential artistic practice.


This seems to be the move games are trying to make, and the elevation of “Fun” as an all-encompassing value, along with endless tedious discussions of frame rates and screen sizes, represent a hostile reaction against this move towards greater artistic complexity.


Gamers simultaneously want to be able to analyze games as a refined art form that they should be respected simply for consuming--as with Cinema or Literature--while also not having to grapple with either criticism that challenges stuff they like, or that demands an engagement with art that is more difficult to assess, and complex affectively. They want the street cred without having done anything to deserve it, basically.


Last time we examined the ways that this plays out in The Last of Us, and I pointed out that the setting--atypical for a horror game in its lush natural beauty--actually plays into a complex fear of human insignificance and irrelevance, and the sense of smallness in the face of vast natural systems beyond our control or even comprehension. I pointed out that these dynamics are affectively difficult in the sense that they present us with a complex range of emotions at once to work through, which prompt wider questions about how we should perceive the possible extinction of humanity and the struggle for survival of the central characters.


Still, The Last Of Us could probably be mashed into the term “Fun” if you really felt like forcing it. Most things could. That’s why “fun” is such a piss poor metric, such an inarticulate way of analyzing games: practically anything could be considered “fun” if you stretch the definition enough to suit your ends. But that just means that you’re arbitrarily writing a definition in order to include the things you do like and exclude the things you don’t. It’s hard to take seriously an intellectual project that so blatantly eschews consistency or coherency.


So let’s discard fun as a key term and talk about what else we might get out of an overall negative experience.


Well, first of all I think we might note the fact that plenty of other art forms are punishing and difficult to get through. We could look to extreme body-based performance art, for example, and how challenging that is to performer and viewer alike, but we could just as easily look to certain metal bands like Meshuggah, bands that create music that’s unpleasant to listen to, destabilizing, frustrating, uncomfortable, &c. Nine Inch Nails is a pretty popular band for goodness sake but there’s some songs on The Downward Spiral that really try your ability to endure the experience. You don’t write a song in 29/4 time because you want to make people feel happy.


Some people put clamps on their tits. You know.


I mean that’s not to say tit clamps or weird polyrhythms are for everyone but there seems to be some human ability to gain enjoyment or fulfillment from difficult or negative affective experiences


In Fallen London, experiencing the story might be the reward for suffering. This isn’t a new idea exactly in games, though I’m not convinced it’s always implemented well. The idea of grinding to progress with a story is quite well accepted for JRPGs… so why not extend the idea of the difficult-grind-for-reward to an emotional grind, a grind that actually, you know, has some real meaning within the game, rather than just being there to waste everybody’s damn time?


If the story IS the reward, I think it’s certainly a fascinating one.


The second city to Fall, to be taken by the Masters of the Bazaar, was Amarna, in Egypt. It was a city taken in exchange for the life of Pharaoh Ankhenaten’s daughter’s husband, on the verge of death after being bitten by a snake. And it worked! To a point. But the husband wasn’t actually cleansed of his poison… instead, he was made immortal but eternally tormented by the seeping poison within him, transformed into a caustic monster known as the Cantigaster.


The wife, known in the game only as The Duchess, was not best pleased about all of this.


For whatever reason, one of the Masters of the Bazaar also wasn’t super thrilled with the progress of the plan I alluded to earlier, the plan of the Bazaar to drag seven cities into the darkness around itself like some strange urban shell. See, the Masters of the Bazaar made a deal of their own: a deal with The Bazaar itself. And for whatever reason, this Master, known then to humans by the name Candles, after the objects that were his primary trading domain, decided that the progression of the plan wasn’t to his liking anymore.


Mr Candles made some sort of pact with the Duchess to keep the Bazaar stuck in Amarna for something like a thousand years. The plan of the Bazaar and the other Masters was thus stalled for an incredible amount of time, and the Duchess achieved some measure of revenge.


I’m not sure what Mr Candles got out of their plan.


Boy do I hope it was worth it.


Whether or not learning about this in much more explicit detail is worth it to the player is, of course, subjective, and something that the game itself is explicitly skeptical of. The constant warnings that there is no hope of succeeding, and the fact that you can piece together some of this narrative by way of a bunch of other stories in the game, call into question how worthwhile this is as a reward.


Nevertheless, it’s worth considering the benefits of playing through the story personally.


I think we might look to some of the other elements of the game, even in the absence of live SMEN content, in order to figure out why I and others are drawn to this kind of content.


One of the relatively early storylines involves you becoming, briefly, the protege of a master of spycraft. As you are drawn further and further into her service, you’re drawn as well into this character’s very bloody revenge plot. There’s a whole bunch of characters that she sees as responsible for several deaths in her family, and eventually, after you’ve gained her trust, she starts sending you on missions to brutally slaughter these enemy spies.


The fucked up thing about this narrative is that there’s no particular reason for you to kill scores of people. Nevertheless, I kept convincing myself that this was the right choice. The game doesn’t actually shy away from showing the consequences of your actions--it’s quite overt about the fact that you’re simply slaughtering people. In the end, the spy master dies and the game essentially says, well, that was a hell of a thing, now someone’s going to take her place, and the board has been reshuffled, and the espionage of the Great Game continues.


The butchery you participated in may not have actually had any kind of lasting impact on the world beyond the blood on your hands.


I like the engagement of this narrative and many of the narratives in the game on the level not of game mechanics and advancement, or the level of abstract moralistic intellectual exercise, but on the level of pure emotional engagement. You’re given every opportunity to back out and leave, or to finish your mentor off before she blows up anyone else. Nothing pressures you to take that route beyond your conviction as a player that you’re doing the right thing. (Or perhaps your personal bloodthirst.) And that, to me, is what allows the actions to read on an affective level, to read as a narrative that you’re engaged with personally, emotionally. It’s interesting because it’s haunting.


Like there’s a card you can get later on where you can make contact with a budding young spy and you can send her to go research your former mentor. And it’s fascinating because all the card suggests is that you can send this person on this assignment, and then it’s up to you as a reader to fill in how your narrative ended, it’s up to you to read that card in relationship to your actions. For me, since I slaughtered a bunch of people, that card always calls up to me memories of my in game decisions, and there’s something deeply horrifying about sending some bright new recruit to the world of spying off to find information on the bloody swath I carved in the Great Game during my brief tenure with this mentor.


The game simply provides a nondescript signpost that says “Oh, hey, remember that story? Yeah, that sure was a thing, huh?” And then it’s up to the player to respond.


When I’m looking at something like Seeking the Name I’m not saying “oh, yeah, I want to be bad, I want to be an Evil Character,” because the GAME isn’t saying that, the game isn’t making any judgment, besides pointing out that Seeking the Name is a SUPREMELY bad idea. There’s no joy in being an Evil Badass because being a Seeker just ends up resulting in you having a tainted soul, a wounded and brutalized body, no money, no friends, and so on and so forth.


The game essentially provides you with the opportunity to suffer in the same way that Candles suffered at the hands of his former companions, urging you not to pursue that path but still not barring your way.


And your suffering will be remarkable.


Eventually the other Masters figured out what was going on with Mr Candles and the Duchess. So, they cooked up a plot of their own.


One of the other masters, Mr Veils, approached the rulers of a Mayan city (we’re still not quite sure which one--possibly Hopelchen) and makes them an offer. Once again, the Bazaar would claim a city. In return, the rulers of this city would become immortal.


And all they needed to do in return?


Butcher and consume a still-living god.


Candles, knowing nothing of Veils’s plot, went with his companion to meet the leaders of this city, those who would later be known as the damned, monstrous, and eternally starving God Eaters. Somehow Candles was stained, scarred, and chained--subdued, bound, eaten alive, drowned in the tears of the Bazaar (a substance known as Lacre), and what was left of his corpse was thrown down a well.


But killing a god is harder than it seems, and something of Mr Candles--or, as he is known in the present, Mr Eaten--remains, ravenous for revenge. Seeking the Name is thus the process of allowing Mr Eaten to haunt your existence more and more, until finally you, too, are consumed. The torture you put your character through, and that you experience as a player, mirrors the torments of Mr Eaten as you too are stained, scarred and chained, and eventually, slowly, become consumed by hunger, betray all your friends and lovers, and toss your greatest treasures one by one down a well.


There’s a thrill in experiencing this horror merely for the prestige of doing it. Plenty of other people are Seekers, and there’s a large viewership watching the solitary few play through this horrible storyline. I think that’s a totally valid choice. But participating personally is sort of ostentatiously pointless, an exercise in your will to power through a trying experience and to face the consequences, all on your own. There’s something seductive in that.


If you want to jam this into a framework of fun, I suppose it’s the fun of the challenge. I think that’s something gamers can accept as an idea, but for some reason they’re very resistant to it outside of certain prescribed contexts. One of the greatest ironies of modern gaming culture is that Hardcore Gamers are resistant to this kind of difficulty (as we will see next week) to a ludicrous degree, despite the fact that putting yourself through a profoundly negative experience is elsewhere considered a mark of profound worth! The idea of something being unfun and that being a core feature is accepted when we’re talking about early NES games and how, frankly, badly designed they mostly are, but it’s not particularly accepted in the context of narrative games and something challenging philosophically or emotionally. Castlevania or whatever may be challenging, but it doesn’t constantly challenge your decision to play Castlevania. And this is what content like this does--it questions your decision to engage this material and to put yourself through an experience like this. That’s an interesting space for games to open up.


If we can accept mechanical masochism as a valid reason to play games, if we can accept Kaizo Mario or I Wanna Be The Guy or Battletoads as being valid experiences to seek out, surely we can put emotionally difficult experiences into this same category, surely we can accept masochistic approaches to game content, to the art that is video games, as valid as well.


Now, as I mentioned earlier, SMEN is tragically on hiatus due to a series of game breaking bugs that resulted in the whole content being pulled a few years ago. The end for SMEN came with the release of a piece of content dealing with a location named the Winking Isle. This content unfortunately had a few critical bugs that had DISASTROUS consequences for the players, and ultimately prompted such furor that the whole content was pulled.


The Winking Isle, from what people saw of it briefly, is actually a perfect encapsulation of SMEN content, despite its bugs. It involves slowly waiting around on the island, using your precious actions to very tediously fast and meditate, until you had the opportunity to toss your earthly possessions--specifically the ultra-valuable items I mentioned earlier, items that I don’t even have yet despite playing this game for MONTHS--one by one, down the well, in return for gaining a sequence of direful candles and bits of story relayed by the residual consciousness of Mr Eaten.


Through a series of events which you can read about in this thread a series of bugs made this content quite a bit more difficult than it was even meant to be, trapped a bunch of people on the island far longer than they should have been, and then ended up booting everyone off the island entirely, losing all their progress.


People were, understandably, upset.


It turned out, after the issue with the bug went down, that Alexis Kennedy, Failbetter’s leader, was just working on SMEN in his spare time. Even though the content was sort of sectioned off from the rest of the game, it had a whole bunch of bugs that could potentially result in people spending real world money on this storyline, which became an issue during the Winking Isle debacle. As a result of all of this, Kennedy decided to pull the content for the time being… though not indefinitely.


As the game repeatedly reminds its players, a reckoning is not to be postponed indefinitely.


I am confident that one day I will be able to Seek the Name myself, that eventually I will be able to go on a quest (which I will fail) and throw everything I love into a well, slowly and torturously grinding my way to a denouement that can only be tragic and bitter.


Because I crave these kinds of experiences, ultimately. I crave experiences from games that cannot be easily described as fun. I am ravenously hungry for experiences that take me to the edge of despair and challenge me emotionally.


I await the day when I shall finally be sated. A reckoning is not to be postponed, and eventually I am confident that this content will return and on that day all shall be well.


And all manner of things will be well.


All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.


All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.


ALL SHALL BE WELL AND ALL SHALL BE WELL AND ALL MANNER OF THING SHALL BE WELL SHALL BE WELL. ALL SHALL BE WELL. ALL SHALL BE WELL. ALL SHALL BE WELL. ALL SHALL BE WELL. ALL SHALL BE WELL. SHALL BE WELL. SHALL BE WELL. SHALL BE WELL. SHALL BE WELL. NOT POSTPONED. NOT IN THE END. NOT FOR LONG

2 comments:

  1. Excellent post. I'm glad I stumbled onto it.

    I love Fallen London, but I feel like one limiting factor it has when seeking to affect players emotionally is that everything is just grinding. While actions are precious, any resources I were to lose can generally be obtained again with enough clicks. I think that some games can have a far greater effect on the player by pairing punishing mechanical difficulty with emotional difficulty.

    I'm not sure if you've played anything by the studio Ice-Pick Lodge, but they're masters at this. When playing through Pathologic or The Void, I ended up doing some terrible things due to actual fear of certain encounters that would happen if I took a more noble route.

    I'd be curious for your thoughts on the interplay between mechanical and emotional difficulty. I'm also now very much looking forward to next week's post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is an example of a game I played that wasn't exactly "fun," but that I still value greatly. Okay, the first half or so of this game was fun. The second half evolved into something like a virtual tour of a concentration camp, and the sheer heights of disturbing-ness that it reached began to overshadow the gameplay. (Cosmic horror's nothing compared to what humans will do to each other. But I digress.) I care about this game because it taught me something, and I don't think it could have done it so effectively without the in-your-face emotional abuse. Specifically, it a) vaccinated me against over-eager support for real-world death penalties and "enhanced interrogations," and b) forced me to understand, on an emotional level, the surprising extent of my own villainy. Both of those are incredibly worthwhile.

    I played quite a long way into Fallen London, back in its early days when it was called "Echo Bazaar." Some of the content was fascinating, but I eventually lost interest -- I think because its business model got in the way of its art. The limited actions, and the fact that you had to spend most of them on mediocre grinding activities, made searching for that really good content a bit like trying to drink by waiting for single drops to fall on your tongue. I'd probably say it was worth the effort if this were the only form of storytelling I had access to, but I have other games that are also fascinating, meaningful, and not inclined to purposely frustrate me in hope that I'll spend more money to advance faster. You almost make me want to give it another spin, I mean it's so cool, but no I won't I won't I won't I won't It's a trap

    You *have* brought out what might be the only valid justification I've so far heard for grinding, though: it can make subsequent in-game choices more meaningful. Giving up a virtual item or power imposes a more personal cost if it took TEDIOUS SOUL-NUMBING HOURS OF YOUR REAL LIFE to obtain. It's easy enough to have your character toss something away for the sake of "doing the right thing," "obtaining the secret knowledge," "completing the area," or whatever the incentive is, if it doesn't sting the *player* at all. Is it worth tolerating click-grinding (which I'd otherwise consider a poor design decision) in games for this reason? Mmmm. I might have to think about it.

    ReplyDelete

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