Thursday, April 28, 2011

Confessions of an Intellectual Drug Dealer

Hi, I'm Will. And I'm a puzzle addict.

I've always liked puzzles, for a simple reason: I'm EXTREMELY arrogant about my intellect, and I have a talent for abstract thought. I may not be the fastest kid in the class on a math problem, or the first to diagram a sentence, but when the teacher asked how to get the chicken, the fox, and the bag of feed across the river, I was the first man on the scene.

(In the last few years the phenomenon of the ARG - Alternate Reality Game - has both fascinated and repelled me. ARGs are giant puzzles that enterprising people -often but not always working to market a product in an innovative way - hide on the Internet and in the real world. ARGs create an amazing sense of the world as a place full of hidden secrets, but they're also frustrating. I was the smartest kid in Mrs. Dason's third grade class, but when the puzzle is available to the entirety of the population of the Internet, I almost always end up just watching the crazy mental gymnastics of the players at the genius end of the Bell curve with a mixture of awe and deep, deep envy.)

When I played my first adventure game 15 or so years ago (Space Quest 5, if you're curious), I was instantly hooked. Abstract thought mixed with funny writing and weird, interesting worlds? It was a perfect fit (barring the times I got stuck and had to beg my Mom to let me call the Sierra Hint Line in the sad days before I had Internet access). Over the next few years I devoured Sierra and LucasArts' back catalog, in search of new characters, cool plots, but most especially... The Rush.

You've felt it. The moment of epiphany, when your brain locks in and you and the game's designer experience a kind of time-delayed telepathy. 5 or 6 different elements come together in a new configuration, and your brain makes the logical leap. The feeling of dawning understanding. Endorphins for the mind. The Rush.

An easy puzzle won't evoke it. If the solution is obvious from the second you see it, there's no thrill, no challenge. Nonsensical difficulty won't, either, when you're just bashing away with trial and error until something finally works. The Rush only happens when your perspective suddenly shifts. The meaning of the impenetrable code becomes crystal clear, the Sphinx's riddle becomes suddenly obvious.

The single best evocation of The Rush I've ever found isn't from a video game at all. It's from the incredibly kinked mind of a guy named Jeff Webster. A few years ago, Webster started a site called Weffriddles. The premise is very simple: Weffriddles is a series of pages, each of which contains some sort of hint or hidden information. The player uses these hints to find the url of the next page. The puzzles start out extremely simply, but become beautifully, wonderfully, terribly complex.

My friend Kevin and I used to do weffriddles when we were bored at our lab jobs. This would inevitably turn into a competition, as each of us fought to be the first to get The Rush on the next puzzle, like two drug addicts fighting over their fix. The beauty of the riddles is that they are almost all quite simple - in hindsight. It is only once you have made the logical leap, felt The Rush, that things fall into place. Before that, you can spend days staring at them in incomprehension.

I have since tried to take up the Weff role myself. My Minecraft server is littered with mazes and obscure puzzles. I get a visceral thrill out of watching people navigating a teleporter maze I constructed over the course of a week. I find myself badgering people into playing through this stuff, because it gratifies the time I spent constructing it; because, as an asshole, I get off on watching them struggle with something I understand completely; and most of all, because I want them to experience The Rush.

Because that telepathy works both ways, and when someone solves a puzzle I've laid out, just for a second, there's someone else in the world who's thinking like me.

(Weffriddles can be found at, and if you are of a certain temperament, will come to dominate your mind for weeks at a time)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Length as Storytelling

I've been replaying Persona 4 lately.

It's one my favorite games, and its only real competition for best PS2 RPG is its immediate predecessor, Persona 3. What I find fascinating about both of these games is that they use what became one of the sometimes-unfortunate defining traits of the Japanese RPG - their extreme length, especially when compared to other genres - and used it for storytelling purposes.

Game length is one of those nebulous topics where I find my opinions changing every time I think about it. I have felt cheated in the past by games that ended too abruptly, and been bored by games that were clearly full of padding to extend play time. What it comes down to, I think, is that a game should last for as long as it's fun, and as long as it has new things to say. Portal and Braid come to mind, as short games that explore their mechanics thoroughly in ~4 hours and then end, and I don't know that I've ever heard many arguments that those games need to be longer. (Portal 2 is significantly longer, but it earns those hours with great extensions to the basic gameplay formula, with constant shifts of setting, and with writing that continues to serve as a reward for players even if a puzzle isn't holding their attention).

But RPGs have often touted "length" as a major selling point. Boxes would claim 40, 60, 100 hours of gameplay, as though it were an end within itself. What this often translates to, however, are long, uninteresting cutscenes, slow-paced battle systems, needlessly obscure puzzles, unfocused, meandering plots. Padding.

Contrast, say, Chrono Trigger, and its sequel Chrono Cross. Trigger is generally considered to be one of the all-time best JRPGs. Cross... isn't.* There are a lot of factors at play to explain that, but the one that I want to focus on here is the fact that Chrono Cross is roughly 3 times longer than its predecessor.

Chrono Trigger is an unusually short game for its genre - about 20 hours, if memory serves. But it is also an extremely tight game - every action your party takes flows naturally into the next, into the next after that, from the opening Millenial Fair to the finale, where focus spreads to give each character their own character-defining sidequest and the player is given multiple options to tackle the final challenge against Lavos. I could chart every major story beat of the game from memory, if I was so inclined, and while that's partly out of familiarity, it's also because everything follows a logical order.

Chrono Cross, on the other hand, meanders. It runs through a cast of 45 playable characters and tons of NPCs. The player's end goal changes numerous times, distractions butt into the plot every few hours.. It's messy and it's tiring and it's LONG. At one point you're organizing a concert, then you're walking in a high-tech city from the future, then you're trapped in a crazy painting world. It doesn't feel long because the designers had a long story to tell; it feels like the designers were told to make a long game and threw a bunch of different ideas together.

(*Mind you, I do like the game. It has a good battle system and a great soundtrack, and it tries to deal in-depth with some interesting concepts that Trigger only deals with in subtext. But it IS a mess.)

Speaking of meandering, didn't I start this post by talking about Persona?

Persona 3 and Persona 4 are an odd blending of genre - they mix fairly hardcore RPG elements derived from their parent series, the Shin Megami Tensei games, with the time management and character-focus elements of a Japanese dating sim. The premise in both games is, basically, the one described on the TV Tropes page "Wake Up, Go to School, Save the World" - you're a high school student who must manage his social life during the day, and then use the power derived from your links to other people to fight otherworldly threats at night.

The games are long - my first playthroughs of each were in the ~60 hour range. But what makes them interesting in a discussion of game length are the way they use that longevity to their advantage. I would say about 40% of that time is spent in the actively RPG parts - exploring dungeons, fighting monsters, fusing Personas to increase your strength. The other 60% if spent socializing with your teammates and friends.

What's key here is that the games both take place over roughly a year. Your character goes (as long as you're managing his development and time properly) from a timid, coarse, friendless stranger into a brave, eloquent hero with a wide circle of friends supporting him in his fight. Huge swaths of game time are devoted to things like school trips or festivals. These occasionally lead to breakthroughs in your investigations, but they're mostly just chances for your character to interact with the rest of the cast, flirt with girls, listen to jokes, bond with friends.

Persona 4, especially, devotes a HUGE amount of time to the interactions between your main character and the other members of your party. As such, it's one of the few games that I've ever felt really conveys what a friendship is like - as much wasting time and shooting the shit as it is fighting to keep each other alive. There are concrete gameplay benefits to spending time with your friends, as they gain power the closer your bond is, but it's also pleasant. I find myself responding to these characters on an emotional level I usually don't, and that's at least in part due to the amount of time I've spent with them.

The player can generally chose to spend time in the dungeons to break all this character-building up with more traditional RPG stuff (Persona 3 makes this more mandatory because there's a limit to how long your characters can spend in the dungeon per trip, but Persona 4 does away with these limits) - but not always.

There's a long sequence in Persona 3 where the team, having reached a point of despair, refuses to enter the dungeon at all. As such, you can only watch them listlessly waste their days until a new catalyst sparks them to action. In gameplay terms, it lasts for maybe half an hour - but it's an extremely effective way to force the character's mindset on the players. It's boring, it's grim - it's good storytelling.

At the end of the day, the extreme lengths of these games make them FEEL like they take place over a year. It gives the player time to form attachments that mimic his character's, and those emotional resonances make the more epic beats of the story significantly more effective when they hit. All of which leads to a game that's way more affecting than others of its ilk.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What Happened at the Library Today

A woman just had a seizure behind me. I'm at the library at Chicago and Ashland, and she started to convulse and almost scream. Loud, inhuman, angry noises, and her body seemed to twist as if trying to pull itself apart.

She's sleeping now, gently snoring, sprawled across a few chairs. The man who's with her - a homeless guy I've seen at the library a few times before, held her throughout. He whispered "there, there" to her as her body bucked and fought. He was concerned, but not alarmed. He ignored the stares of the other patrons, told people grabbing their phones that they didn't need an ambulance. It was just a seizure, she had them all the time. Normally she had them in the mornings, but today she was having them in the afternoon. She'd quiet down in a few minutes.

He was calm, collected. Once her shaking had subsided and she had drifted off to sleep, mind and body exhausted by contortions, he turned back to his computer and waited for her to wake.

What's scarier? The loss of control? The realization that the human body, brain included, is not under the sole jurisdiction of the conscious thing we call "I," but merely a collection of connected cells that can suddenly cascade in painful, humiliating ways?

Or that this man, who I've judged before, for having less than me, for not always being able to bathe every day, treated what must be an incredibly stressful daily occurrence with grace and dignity, while I sat here, scared, and fucking BLOGGED about it.