Friday, April 24, 2009

Molly's on the left platform

I know the roof of Mercy Hospital better than you could possibly imagine.

In my mind is a very detailed map of that place, all its topography laid out clearly. I could draw you an overview from memory.

The metal walkway leading up to the heli pad.

The narrow stairway that leads up to the air conditioning unit platform.

The two catwalks that flank the mounted machine gun.

Oh, hello! I'm talking about video games!

Of the four extraction points in Left 4 Dead's zombie apocalypse simulation, the roof of Mercy is widely regarded as the most difficult. It's got almost no open ground, so very little room to run. You constantly have to be aware of what's behind you so you don't get pinned in a corner. Compared to the other extraction areas (an airport runway, a farmhouse in an open field, and a lakeside camping area) that roof is like a postage stamp. A postage stamp of a middle finger.

And that would be enough by itself, but the icing on the difficulty cake is that this is all on top of a very large building. So if you get hit by a tank in the wrong spot, you go flying right the hell off the side.

That ladies and gentlemen, is not a "game mechanic." That is a "big 'screw you' from the programmers."

But Mercy is possible, even on Advanced mode where the proverbial men and boys are sorted into their appropriate groups. I've done it. We've done it (the we being my usual crew.)

But not without a lot of trying that level, over and over again.

I am still on the roof of Mercy Hospital being decimated. And I am on that helicopter with all 3 of my friends, looking back at the place that tested us. And I am standing in that chopper watching our fourth man get dragged away before anyone could help him. And I'm standing there alone because I left them all.*

I had to.

*And then we watched and episode of "Man v. Food" and called it a night.

Friday, April 17, 2009

This post gets a 7.8

If I could leave behind only one idea, it would be this:

(Actually, that's not true. There are lots of ideas I'd like to leave behind, but this is an important one.)

"The mark of a connoisseur is not that he knows what's good and what's bad, but that he finds both good and bad in everything."

That is to say, a person who's truly knowledgeable about something doesn't turn up their nose to anything but what is considered the "best." Instead they're always trying a bit of everything. To the master critic, there is only one insult: boring, and there is only one praise: interesting.

Another way to put it is this: "On the day I learned to appreciate fine cuisine, I didn't stop liking bubble gum."

And on the road to this sort of appreciation, I think services like Netflix and Gamefly are one of the best modern aids.

I think a lot of the snooty element of criticism ultimately comes from the purchase of it. People read reviews because they don't want to waste money on an experience they won't enjoy. As a side-effect, though, we develop the idea that some works are "good" while others are "bad,"* and many people miss out on things that, although not entirely sound, are still valuable and thought provoking.

But once your media becomes a single service, a single fee that gets you access to a large bank of material, it does a lot to change your perspective.

Why should I even read a game review now? If it seems even a little interesting I can add it to my queue and see what it's about. If I don't like it, I can just ship it back the next day and try something else. Why should I care what the current Metacritic score of a movie is? If I don't like it, I'll just stop the DVD.

The only review that matters now is the kind that don't score at all, but are instead just an intellectual discussion of a work's merits . . . which is really what a review is supposed to be anyway.

*This does not include movies with vampire turkeys.

Friday, April 10, 2009

L4D 4Life

I've always been a big fan of Steam, Valve Software's digital distribution platform, but there's one feature that I find unsettling.

It tells me how long I've spent playing.

It came to my attention a couple of weeks ago that I'd spent 30 hours (of the previous two weeks) playing "Left4Dead," Valve's popular co-op zombie apocalypse game.

I essentially had a part time job destroying the undead. Not even a job really, because I wasn't getting paid. I had an internship. (I'm using had only because the number is now down to a mere 10 hours out of the last two weeks.)

Zombie stories are frequently used as social commentary, most notably in the movies of George A. Romero. I guess when your genre has given you free reign to show humanity at it's most desperate, social commentary can really sneak up and get into your mind

 . . . like a zombie would, I guess.

But I'm always trying to figure people out, to find their "thesis," so I tend to treat creative works as the author's waking dream. And that's why, as I was spending all that time playing Left 4 Dead, I had a revelation about why zombies have remained such an appealing topic.

Left 4 Dead has a set of special "super zombies" that you have to manage.

"The Hunter" is always in a black hoodie, he leaps at you and pins you to the ground.

"The Smoker" has a stream of smoke pouring off of him, and he strikes from a distance by lashing out his long tongue and dragging you away.

"The Boomer" is a big, fat, burping thing that vomits on you, which attracts a rush of regular zombies.

"The Witch" lies crying in a heap, but if you disturb her, she'll scream and knock you down.

"The Tank" is a huge beast that's big on damage and defense.

What I found interesting about these five was how I started seeing them in real life. "The Hunter" looks an awful lot like the gang banger (or kid who wants to look like a gang banger) that you tense up around at Kroger. "The Smoker" is not so a not-so-subtle reference to cigarette smokers, who can annoy you from a distance. "The Boomer" is an exaggerated form of all the most unpleasant bodily functions. "The Witch" reminds me a lot of some tantrum-prone children at the supermarket. "The Tank" is . . . I don't know, an SUV? Let's go with that.*

When I look at this lineup of villains in the context of a game that's already about hordes of reanimated humans, it shows me one thing.

Zombies aren't about our fear of death. They're about our fear of humanity. Zombie stories are tales of people trying to survive against hordes of other (albeit undead) people. 

This is the nightmare world of the malcontent. This is how super antisocial people see the world. They're so afraid of other people that they stop viewing them as human, and think of them as mindless monsters.

*If I think of a way to fold auto-shotguns into the metaphor, I'll let you know.

Friday, April 3, 2009

End of year two

"Recursive morality" is a concept I've been thinking about for so long, I don't really remember what made me think of it in the first place.

I say "think of it" like I'm the sole author, but I'm not saying it's an entirely new concept. If you're working in a "young" or even "young-ish" field, computer programming or space station design, the chances of you coming up with a revolutionary idea are pretty good.

Morality is something humans have been thinking about for a pretty long time, actually, so it's somewhat more difficult to break fresh ground.

With the disclaimer aside, I'll explain what it's all about.

Most moral doctrines justify themselves with one of two ideas:

1. Because God says so - This casts God into what Brennan Manning calls an "eternal, small-minded bookkeeper." Just an entity making a tally of what we do right or wrong, scoring us as we go along. Not only does this perspective smack head-first into all my personal, spiritual experience, it also does nothing to explain why "good" is good, and why "bad" is bad. The moral concepts might as well be arbitrary, just a set of rules by which we play.

2. Because it's what you would want - This empathetic or "golden rule" is a fine idea, but it only works if you take it as self-evident. But "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is only an approach to morality, it doesn't explain why this is better than being out for yourself.

My "recursive morality," on the other hand, offers not only an approach to moral ideas, but an inherent justification for why some things are "right" and others are "wrong."

To sum it up as best I can:

"Happiness" is not only a matter of creating a certain state, but also of being receptive to that state. When you honestly earn the money to buy something you want, you've not only acquired the thing, but given it added value by working for it. When you steal money to buy something (or just stolen the item) you've cheapened it in your own heart, thus robbing it of the full enjoyment.

But more importantly, in both cases you've changed a little about yourself. The action of theft has caused you to do harm to someone else. In order to do that harm, you had conclude on some deeper level that either 1. You hate the people you've hurt or 2. You don't care about the people you've hurt.

You are, by your own moral action, a different person.

And that's what "recursive morality" is really about. You, as an individual, have authorship over who you are. Your subconscious may guide you without your notice, but you are also constantly at work on it. When you cause harm in the world around you, you're telling YOURSELF that you're the kind of person who acts without love or concern. When you help someone in need, when you pick up litter and throw it away, when you fold your clothes in the morning*, you are telling yourself that you are a considerate, loving person.

And only one of those two people, recursive morality argues, is CAPABLE of being happy. At the same meal, one person enjoys every bite, while the other complains, thinks about all the things that would be better, and suspects that he's going to get stuck with the bill.

Perhaps then there is no real judgment in death. Heavens gates are not barred, but rather some souls refuse to enter, incapable of receiving it's treasures.

*Maybe that's where I started thinking about it. This quote perplexed me for a long time:

"a spiritual thing is folding your clothes at the end of the day. A spiritual thing is making your bed. A spiritual thing is taking cookies to your neighbor that is shut in or raking their front lawn because they are too old to do it. That's spirituality. Getting a warm, oozy feeling about God is an emotional thing-there is nothing wrong with it-I think there is nothing more practical than real spirituality." -Rich Mullins