Caught in a World Full of Monsters

There are a lot of issues surrounding Blade Runner that keep me coming back to it in regards to explaining some of the elements of the cyberpunk genre.  One of the reasons for this is its rich imagery and how much the film calls attention to its source material.  There’s one element that my screenwriting professor points to that I want to address here: the seemingly problematic point-of-view character.  The film is populated with characters that are builders and the built.  Some of them are in positions of surveillance, making them spectators along with the audience watching the drama unfold—except one character.  Deckard doesn’t know who he is.  The audience doesn’t know who he is and this is what makes him the perfect character to introduce us into this horrid landscape.

So, why is it the case that Deckard is our POV into this world?  It comes from the tradition of noir fiction.  During the interbellum period of the world wars, predominantly the Great Depression, people lived hand-to-mouth and this is pretty much embedded in the private investigator characters like Sam Spade.  They are perpetually living on the edge, forced to take the next case that comes along so they can keep the lights on and afford a cheap meal.  The oppressive heat that seems endemic to these stories lets us know as an audience just how hellish or close to hell these characters are.

The private investigator doesn’t have the ability to refuse the way a cop does.  Sometimes the character is an ex-cop who still has connections on the police force.  Of course, this just reinforces the concept that the character is caught between worlds.  In this case it’s the duly deputized agents of the law (representing the light) and the shady characters the investigator is often paid to follow and discover what they’re up to.  This is surveillance by the half-blind without the right gear or all the facts in a murky realm of twilight.

And this is where Deckard comes in.  When we are first introduced to him he’s unconcerned with the world around him.  He understands it, is a part of it, but wants to be distanced from it.  How does the audience know this?  He pretends to not understand the pidgin spoken by Gaff, played by Edward James Olmos.  In the theatrical release, the audience is told this through the use of a voice over that doesn’t bother to hide that this film takes a lot of cues from film noir. Deckard is our Sam Spade, but his inability to refuse isn’t financially driven.  No, this investigator is at the mercy of the law embodied by M. Emmet Walsh’s character, Bryant.

The audience is given very little information about Deckard beyond his desire to not blend into either world.  We are told from the very beginning that his position is in question.  Furthermore, some line spoken by Gaff recall actions taken or line spoken by Deckard that the audience cannot be sure if Deckard is a replicant or a human.  All the audience can know for sure in the context of the film is what Deckard needs to do to escape the hold the law has over him given his skill set.

But, that isn’t the shadowy underworld that Deckard is plunged into.  No, because in cyberpunk, the noir isn’t of the streets, but the mind and what it means to be human.  This is why the question of the replicants and their place in the social order needs to but can’t be answered without violence.  Where does the line between human and machine exist and can anyone be sure that it can’t be crossed?  The Voight-Kampff test is supposed to tell Deckard, and the viewer, that at first blush, you can tell the difference.  Here is where the femme fatale enters the story in the form of Rachel.  The femme fatale character is a succubus figure that, with her beauty and sexual energy, draws the protagonist into the underworld.

The question here is who or what is Deckard.  The audience is never told, but as he hunts down the replicants, there’s a subtle descent into the character’s subconscious through his interactions with each target.  But, here’s where Deckard’s knowledge diverges from the audience’s and the story shows this world to be filled with Frankensteins and their monsters.  The first one is the landscape itself.  The monstrosity of the city sprawl and the darkness in which it’s veiled reveals the urban world as one of leviathan proportions.  Anyone in the city is in the belly of the beast, which is what is shown with all the teeming press of people surrounded by buildings, some of which overhang the street.

The second realization is that the replicants may in fact be human despite their artifice.  This is a nightmarish Pygmalion in the vein of Frankenstein.  As a result, we have a world that is completely sterile with the only life therein is either filled with production values or an artifice playing at being alive.  Regardless of the case may be the result is the same: extreme alienation and the illusion of freedom.  The visuals of the world reflect this.  It’s why the city is seen at a distance.  The scale of the snake is examined in the extreme to reveal the manufacturer’s serial number in much the same way Deckard cannot look at a the whole of a photo, he has to zoom in and twist and turn around angles to decipher the information it contains in his pursuit of the inhuman while engaging in a decidedly inhuman act.

There is not satori here.  Nothing in Blade Runner is appreciated for what it is, only for how it is put together.  That is until Deckard is confronted with Rachel and the audience later with the unicorn dream and the subsequent reference with Gaff’s origami unicorn.  And the origami (both the match man and the foil wrapper unicorn) here matters because it’s the only sign of life in this bleak environment and emblematic of the missing elements of the environment: vitality and light.

Is Deckard a replicant or is he human?  The audience is never clued in and nobody says anything concrete.  Yet, hints are given that he may very well be a duplicate of someone else.  The theatrical release provided some important references here that give us another monster to confront in the struggle for identity and individualism.  Deckard’s outfit is different than everyone else’s, but he is cast from the prototypical gumshoe mold complete with trench coat while Gaff wears the hat.  Gaff and Bryant appear to surveil Deckard and when he finally makes a break for it with Rachel, the unicorn is the reference to let the audience know Gaff was there and knows his plans.  It is as clear a message as any that in this murky world, someone has perfect measure of this man who doesn’t know himself and the audience cannot truly know.

This is a hideous position to be in and explains why the underworld in Blade Runner isn’t the club or Zhora’s erotic dance with the snake, but rather the internal turmoil Deckard is plunged into after meeting a woman who gives every indication of being human but has to be cross examined ten times as long (and thus psychologically dissected) to detect the artifice behind her construction.  Deckard’s attraction to her isn’t Pygmalion’s, it’s the Nathanael’s from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman.”  Rachel is therefore a newer model Olimpia and the obsession with eyes begins to make sense in this world of monsters.

Why the eyes, because absolutely nothing can be taken at face value even though nothing has depth.  Everything presented is an interface devoid of content except for the replicants.  They cry, they fume, they even commit murder as a crime of passion when Roy gouges out his maker’s eyes before crushing his skull.  Zhora is a combat model who plays the seductress.  Pris, the pleasure model acts like a child and in her death throes is depicted as having a tantrum as she thrashes her way into oblivion.

The violence here is justified as the only humans in the story are passive observers who show more interest in how their creations act and have turned out rather than treating them as people with equal dignity.  Tyrell is interested in Roy’s mind and his growth in his short life.  J.F. Sebastian is a toy maker whose work helped engineer the construction of the replicants’ bodies.  Hannibal Chew only makes eyes, the windows to the soul, but no actual soul.  No humans breathe life into this story, they only judge and marvel at their own work.  They’ve played god and worship their own idols.  This is a grotesque and inhuman response that’s all too human when we marvel at our own deeds and what we’ve wrought.

Deckard doesn’t answer the question of his position, but his escape from the city with Rachel speaks volumes.  It’s the only time the sun shines in the film.  The wilderness of the trees lacks any connection to the human world of machines and labor-saving devices.  It is the equivalent to the monster’s flight into the barren Arctic waste in Frankenstein.  Deckard is a monster like the rest of them, albeit one with a conscience.  Blade Runner reveals the cybernetic world as one of irrational order.  As such, Deckard is the correct POV character for the one thing he does: avoids giving into the madness of the darkness enveloping him, a remarkable feat compared to the artificial intelligences that come before him in the literary roots of cyberpunk fiction.

The flu wiped me out.

Well, I lost about a week of productivity due to whatever crud is going around.  It was pretty bad and on Saturday when the fever kicked in I ended up having some pretty lucid fever dreams.  You know, the kind where you can’t really tell if your actually dreaming or sleeping.  It’s pretty weird and one of the reasons I’m glad I don’t get sick all that often.

My lungs are still congested, so I’m not sure how much voice dictation I can do, which is where I can really up my daily word count.  That said, I have several essays to crank out and a bunch of other things coming your way that have already been written and just need editing and the like.

More than 12,000 words

Okay, so I guess I didn’t realize it’d been ten days since I last posted anything.  That said, here’s a progress report:  I’ve been writing a lot.  In the last two days alone, I’ve written over 8,000.  Well, dictated at least.  I churned out nearly 2,000 from handwritten notes in about an hour.  It left me winded.

As for my other gaming-related posts, you’ll get some more of those soon.  I’m in the process of cleaning up some of that text, but I’ve had to prioritize certain projects over others, which means the blog has gotten short shrift in the meantime.  Soon, there should be some more mapping progress to show as well.  Fingers crossed.

I don’t always shill…

But when I do, it’s because  someone asked me too.  And, since this is day three of pimping Jim Pinto’s “The Carcass” on Kickstarter, I figured I’d spring into action on this fine first day of spring before he springs on me for not doing this earlier today.  (Sorry, work and life got in the way.)  So, this is me making up for it and having it go out to a bunch of sites at once.

You’re welcome, Jim.


Here’s the link:

Progress made

Just a quick note to let everyone know that although I haven’t been keeping up on the blog posts, I’m still working.  I’ve had to slow down quite a bite due to my hand being worse off than I thought, but I managed to churn out nearly 1,000 words yesterday.  Expect some more posts to come soon.  I’ve been handwriting a lot of essays as well.

Anatomy of Game Design: A Digital State

I’m going to take a risk and make a statement I was taught – and in turn taught others – not to do: avoid the absolute or amorphous, timeless statements. Since the dawn of our intellect as a species, we have lived in a digital state – at least we have tried to. I base this assumption in part on our need to categorize information. Everything is quantified in a state of being a particular thing. Games have a way of capturing this concept perfectly. The visual is what lets the analogy work so well. Basically, games are digital. They are this way because there really is no way for them to represent a trinary state.

Games have yes/no values predominantly. They generally only express maybe during randomizations. Once the dice stop rolling or the cards are shuffled, the “maybe” state disappears. The same holds true of the spaces on a game board: either they are occupied or they are empty. Probably one of the purer examples of this is tic-tac-toe. Spaces are blank or filled. If filled, they contain one of two symbols. This is because of the nature of the game. The possible pieces of data that go into each space do not represent a trinary state as two of the possibilities give ownership to one of the players. None of this should seem surprising as it is something all gamers have experienced in some fashion.

So, where does this phenomenon of a digital state come from? In many ways, it is intrinsic to who we are as a species. There is a binary that operates in our thought processes; you, me; us, them; male, female; inside, outside the group/play space/magic circle. It is one of the organizing principles we learn to develop before culture informs us otherwise. Then again, a lot of what we do during our formative years is rooted in a system of classifications that allow us to make sense of the world. We do not have to go far to see this in action. We are engaging in that activity right now. Or, more precisely, you are as I sent you a coded script in your past that you just received a short time ago and are now decoding. I do not know when you will get this, but I know that you are not standing over my shoulder reading my first draft written in a notebook – in cursive – or while I type the edited rewrite you see before you now. What I know is this: you understand the message enough to get this far into it because of the rules that define each word’s place in language and the structure which determines meaningful context. All you need to make sense of my words is to identify what is acting in each sentence.

The complexity of sentences is designed to allow us to relate ideas more concretely, but we are aware on some level the categories and meanings of the words used and the ideas they are meant to express. In all, our brains are just looking for who or what acted. The remainder of the words help answer how, why, when, and where. This is a rather simplistic rendering of the subtle nuances of language, but it is the main impetus behind communication. A whole host of binaries are layered in the words: is it a synonym, is it spelled correctly, and is it used properly, just to name a few questions. Classification structures our lives and keeps us from harm as we learn what is safe and what is dangerous, just like it does our language.

Games provide us with a symbolic representation of categorization that we do automatically. We just don’t pay attention to the process because we already have internalized it. If you want to see it happen, observe two- and three-year-olds. The constant questioning and testing their parents’ limits are examples of this mechanism in action. This is how the brain learns to interpret the world. Once the gross patterns are learned, we begin to experiment. The child who makes grammatical errors when trying to conjugate verbs or apply superlatives (“I won you,” “I losted it,” and so on) are examples of attempts to use the structural patterns that define how we translate ideas from our thoughts into images others can grasp.

One of the reasons that games require time to learn is because of this need to categorize different states and to understand how the structural patterns work and how they can be used. The fuzzy state in between the rules is not unlike the individual words in a language. Slippage in definitions creates the spectrum in which meanings can exist by grammatical category and the nuances assigned to any single word. We can orientate ourselves by these signifiers in language to not only find our coordinates in a thought but in the way it seems to be heading. The same happens on a game board.

As our thoughts unfold, we know where they cannot go. On the game’s cartography, we learn the same concepts, only in a much more abstract manner. The way the game takes shape informs the players what is possible and what is not. This, too, is a binary. We might not have every piece of information to tell us all of the possible outcomes, but we do not know what cannot happen. In chess, for example, a pawn cannot move backwards, so we know that once it moves up a square, it no longer threatens the same squares it had. Those squares are not safe from that pawn for the rest of the game.

While games may use some of the tools for information theory in the guise of grammatical constructs, it is symbolic. The abstract information bound in the symbols prevents the binary state from being noticeable. We do not look at the empty spaces. Rather we look for the relationship between the pieces and their current point in the game space. The unoccupied locations only matter for purposes of determining strategic judgments and the odds of winning. Otherwise, the data is extraneous.

The binary elements of “is” and “is not” constitutes the digital world. A switch is either on or off. Games make us of a lot of binaries, but the uncertainty of the game relies outside of these binaries because they do not last long enough and their effects are more relevant than when probability is in flux. As our focus is mostly on chance when we play a game, we do not notice how prevalent these dualities really are. The random results and how we can stack chance in our favor is what we are drawn to. Why not, it is infinitely more exciting than the binary states. For games without random chance, we turn to our own skills against our opponents since we can never know what is in our opponent’s heads. Regardless, it is that underlying digital state which makes the nuances possible in the abstracts of symbolic concepts or the slippage in the definitions of words that fill the spaces between the bounds established by the binaries. It is how we define the rules that create the play space to create what is the game and what is not and allowed actions, positions, etc., that shows that games, and how we view information, are inextricably linked as a digital state.

Anatomy of Game Design: Modifiers, Part 2

What about games that use the bell curve for their dice roll? If you look at the most recent editions of GURPS, Hero System, and BESM, they all do the same thing. What differs is the number of dice used, otherwise character construction functions like this: you spend points to buy ability scores that have a flat cost with some increases if a maximum ability score value is exceeded and then you can only do so with the gamemaster’s approval. BESM uses target numbers, which is effectively the opposite of D&D in the approach to simulation (flat vs. bell curve mechanic). So, it doesn’t allow a way to approach the issue of what modifiers are since they work in tandem with the relevant ability score ando/or skill to push the die roll total over the threshold for the target number. For example, the average adult has a rating of 4, the two six-sided dice yield an average of 7. Add ranks from a skill and that puts the average total at 12-17. The difficulty for an average task is 12, meaning success is more often the case. Target numbers adjust up or down by three, or roughly half a die’s average. Situational modifiers further refine the system, but they, too, are strength of position values used for environmental effects where the target number stands in as the measure for how hard something is to accomplish.

GURPS and Hero System take a different approach. They take the concept of the bell curve and use it for an internal system. GURPS gives a list of modifiers for a great many situations, like culture, differences in technological familiarity and the situation. All of them are still strength of position based modifiers. The challenges are within relation to the bell curve and the number or less needed for success. Even the modifiers that denote the difficulty are strength of position based. They range from +10 to -10. As GURPS uses a 3d6 for checks, this means a task’s difficulty is adjustable up to just shy of the curve’s average. A failure or success is virtually guaranteed at such extremes. Interestingly enough, GURPS, doesn’t penalize skill usage in combat the way D&D does. Though not stated, the dice roll represents the unquantifiable elements that could go for or against the character.

HERO System has a bit more variance, but this is limited by how skills and abilities are calculated. Like GURPS, the bell curve governs outcomes, but the values determining ranks in a skill are different so that ability scores are given less weight by dividing their value where GURPS uses a flat subtractor. None of this hides the artifice that modifiers are still rooted in the wargaming concept of strength of position. In fact, the penalties assessed against skills not normally used in combat confirms that the game’s mechanics are, like all the games discussed thus far, iterations of a derivative of wargames with perhaps a step or two between them and their predecessors. The bulk of the HERO System modifiers reside in the numerous augmentations to the basic power descriptions. But these modifiers aren’t used in play. Rather, they determine the total cost in points against a player’s budget. BESM and GURPS also do this, but HERO System raises it to an extreme. In this respect, HERO System is a true simulation tool. Any changes made to powers only define how they are manifested mechanically. There are some descriptive elements in the powers and their modifiers, but these are strength of position effects. If the power is housed in a firearm, for instance, an opponent has the ability to fight for possession if he is close enough to the character to grab hold of the weapon. Distance becomes a form of leverage and how far away a character opponent is from a device affects its overall value as location contains more meaning in the relationship between object and user/target.

Let’s look at a couple of games that try to reduce the emphasis on the strength of position in the application of modifiers: White Wolf’s new World of Darkness and Alternity. The World of Darkness uses a dice pool mechanics where each die is independent of the others. No matter what results turn up on other dice, they do nothing to alter the outcome of this one. Each ten-sided die has a 70% failure rate, however. This value is static. The whole of the system revolves around the number of dice thrown. So, for WoD games, it really is a numbers game when it comes to the mechanics. The adjustments are relative strengths of position on first glance. Unlike the values for other systems discussed so far, the addition or reduction modifiers in the WoD system do not translate into as large of a jump in percentages guaranteeing success that most systems incur as part of their mechanic for initial adjustments. The formula for success in WoD is consistent, but the percentages scale. Without including the math for the “10 again” rule that allows rerolls for 10s, the chance of success is 1-.7x, where “x” is the number of dice rolled. This is not ot say that other systems don’t have varying percentages or that the WoD system doesn’t skew towards larger intervals, but that at the average dice pool size of 4, the loss of a die only affects the chance of success by 10% and adding a die increases it by 7%. Like bell curve systems, the chances along the extremes grow more noticeable.

Each die still retains its rate of failure at 70%. This fact is what changes the system from modifiers that are purely strength of position to ones of relative strength or relative position. It might seem like an argument of semantics, but there is a lot of room between the two ideas as the former is an absolute, giving it a hard edge. Yes, success becomes more likely, but unlike the adjustments for D&D and the bell curve games discussed, this system relies purely on random chance. It is true that the number of dice rolled influences probability towards the player’s favor, but such modifications don’t work to shift the average total. The artifice is still visible, but the dice pool does reduce the visibility. One of the masks is to require a number of successes to be rolled, which affects the probability but brings attention to the number of dice rolled and the adjustments slide towards their wargame roots. Even the permutations on the rolls can’t prevent the slide, but does keep the game from collapsing into the wargame mechanic.

Alternity is a special case in light of everything discussed so far. The game is in many ways the forerunner of the d20/OGL system. All actions are governed by the roll of a d20, but it gets modified by the inclusion of another die. The game is an internal system, quasi-point-buy, and a linear cost for ability scores. There are a few twists, however. Success increases in magnitude if the thresholds reached are half the ability or skill score or half that number again. The d20 serves as a control die and is always used. The bonus or penalty determines what size die, if any, accompanies the d20. There’s no bell curve for average tasks under common conditions. Any inclusion of a bell curve thus represents an unquantifiable but noticeable condition that makes a task easier or more challenging. Plus, it has the added bonus of varying percentages.

Adjustments in Alternity look like those from other games, but this is superficial. The addition of a die or two may create a bell curve, but it varies by circumstances and represents a more nebulous approach as the chief mechanic applies more descriptive terms to situations that represent the linguistic component to a random roll. A +1 or +2 step penalty isn’t a flat adjustment, but changes a d20+d0 to a d20+d4 or d20+d6 respectively. The descriptive term is used to complement the die penalty or bonus. Like internal systems, this game doesn’t make use of varying target numbers. The mechanic is somewhat similar to WoD in that the control die is independent of the situation die. Yes, there combined total matters, but the situation die is a random value and not a flat number that moves the bell curve along the number line. Add to this the same potential to slide into the strength of position by paying attention to the dice rolled and the artifice is revealed once more. Rather than relying on the permutations that WoD has as options, Alternity uses them up front (for example, there’s no equivalent to “10 again” or the like as an Amazing result already addresses that issue and counts as multiple successes). The inclusion of complexity for tasks at the outset is also encoded in descriptive terms. But, because of these compensations and nuanced negotiations, the game shows its artifice all the more and reveals that the situation die is still a form of strength of position modifier, only one with more randomness.

It seems that RPGs are too rooted to their wargame predecessors. No matter the system or method, the vestiges of the strength of position are embedded in the fabric of the game. There are a few glimmers that this won’t always be the case, but the math and its manipulation are barriers. Both Alternity and World of Darkness contain methods of mitigating the problems that adjustments present, but both also reveal that the only meaning ascribed to these values are a character’s relation in respect to proximity. The result is a conflict between potential and probability. If a system can remove the only meaning as one of relative strength by position, then the modifier can take on more nuanced meanings and leave behind physical and theoretical terrain features used in RPGs up to this point. A fully random mechanic seems to point a way toward that end. For now, however, it seems the answer to my question of what a modifier is is a relationship of strength based on positionality in any given frame of reference.

Anatomy of Game Design: Kitchen Table Theater

In the last installment, I talked about the magic circle and its role in games. I also mentioned there was a use in other performative ventures for the magic circle. The truth is, games also have a performative element to them. Players shift from focal point to audience as their turns come and go. More importantly is what a player does or how he behaves. Like actors, games take on roles; even if they are unaware they do so. This is why games are kitchen table theater.
The play space of a game is no different than that of the stage. Everyone is given a part. The boundaries are made distinct by the grammar of the genre. Players and actors both interpret what their roles are within the context of the rules of the game or play. Pratfalls and witty dialogue are inappropriate for most dramas, but they are expected and conform to the rules of the comedy genre. There are games where some behaviors are not only discouraged, but completely inappropriate.
Let’s look at a game like Monopoly to see what kitchen table theater looks like and how some roles are affected. The premise of this game is to accumulate more wealth than anyone else. Players are left to determine which strategy they will pursue to achieve the game’s goals. Will one haggle, buy everything in sight, negotiate, cooperate with some players and not others, or play out of spite? This last one is often a result of sibling rivalry. When we play a game like this, we are assuming a role permissible not only by the rules, but also our fellow players. It’s probably safe to assume that not every waking moment of siblings is spent in rivalry or animosity. As such, the behavior during play isn’t necessarily a reflection of filial emotions in the long term. It can be a carryover of feelings in the moment, however.
Using the table as a theater, the game becomes the setting for the scripted framework for the type of story the players are about to watch and perform in. For those versed in theater, there should be some identifiable elements of the tabletop theater with Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed (that’s because he used games). The spectators are the actors and their ability to shape the performance as it unfolds is just like what gamers do when playing Monopoly.
You won’t see the same behavior in a chess match as you do in a game of Monopoly. That’s because the structure of play changes not only the performances allowed, but also the rules which govern the roles available. So, it isn’t just how you act, but what persona you adopt that is at stake. The game might not have a story itself, but the lack of one does not negate role assumption.
Most people aren’t cutthroat real estate brokers, even if they are realtors! Chess players aren’t necessarily generals using cold, calculated logic to navigate everyday situations. They might be better planners, but that is a result of skill, not the role assumed. To claim otherwise is to assume one well versed in the role of Shakespeare’s Iago is as ruthless and conniving with his friends and loved ones offstage as well as on. The actor’s familiarity with the role and his skill at playing it does not mean he’s going to harm anyone outside the play any more than one who’s assumed the role of the spoiler in Monopoly is going to eternally cajole, nettle, and foil the targeted relative until the end of one of their days when the game is over. But, it is still an act performed on a stage. Only difference is the audience isn’t the world; it is the handful of player-spectators who are also putting on their own show, congruity not required.

Malmart’s Style Section

Overdue for some updates, but here goes….

I’ve spent much of the last couple days researching and fleshing out my notes for the style section for Malmart.  What does that mean for you?  The options for clothing have exploded and it’s using tables to build customized clothing.  It doesn’t matter what fashion scene the characters belong to or how you deck them out.  The result is a system that allows you to build an ensemble that makes it possible to mechanically use clothing in your game for any number of reasons and still be true to the cyberpunk genre.

The cool thing is that in regards to terms, you can make in excess of 28,728 outfits.  Choosing the minimum number of options, you’re probably well off with those combinations to do everything you need.  The cool thing is that it takes up so little room you don’t have to worry about being smacked with a bunch of details/rules.  I can’t wait to crunch the numbers for the weapons options as well as a few other sections that are using a similar building-block approach for items that can’t be listed individually.