Monthly Archives: April 2012

In a Relationship

In real life, relationships are complex. In fact, human interaction of any sort is just about the most elaborate intermingling of social, psychological, and physical frameworks you’ll ever see. This is why successful movies, books, and television shows all focus on character growth and personal relationships; people love to see the intricacies at work.

However, these relationships can be molded, contorted into being what we want and, more often, what we don’t want. Through textual mediums such as instant messenger or e-mail, the lack of vocal inflection requires you to be much more deliberate in your diction and phrasing lest you offend someone. Over the phone, facial expressions and hand gestures are lost as your intent is filtered through the wire, requiring your interjecting sighs and chortles to communicate what your physical being cannot.

Take, for (a relevant) example, Call of Duty’s multiplayer voice chat. Without a face to put to the voice, the entire framework of communication laid out by the game effectively forces you to dehumanize your opponents and teammates. To you, they are just a bucket in which you can dump your frustrations, angers, and occasional bits of jubilation. The problem is that this bucket can talk back. It can volley back retorts, obscenities, and racial slurs with the best buckets out there. The rote, mindless action of the game is wholly engrossing, leaving minimal mental faculties for maintaining human decency. This is how you end up with shouting matches and rage quits.

Which makes Thatgamecompany’s Journey’s co-op interactions altogether fascinating. Everything is carefully crafted and placed to the sandy micrometer so as to form intensely personal relationships with what are ostensibly strangers and does so by forming a single, unique combination of two types of players. Although these numbers convey a sense of simplicity, the dependence on one another is as complex as you can find outside of the game’s rutilant sun.

At the most base interpretation of this affair, one person is a follower and the other is a leader (there is the chance that both parties mutually disengage from this enterprise, but that just makes them both a bad leader and a bad follower). Distilling it to such a rudimentary chemical reaction, though, is doing it a disservice. It is symbiotic necessity for mere existence.

As a leader, you must be brave and resolute. You must never falter or doubt yourself; your follower depends on you. You may not know where you are going or what you are doing, but you move ever forward; your follower has placed his trust in you. You can never quit; your follower believes in you.

As a leader, you are the lance that can pierce the unknown. Your intrepidness is the stalwart beam coming from the lighthouse leading you home. You are not a leader because you chose to be but because it was required of you. Without you, your partner is lost, sad, and alone. You have saved him from the gutter and placed him in your warm embrace where you can be the guiding light he needs to survive.

As a follower, you are reticent and reliable. You acknowledge your leader’s strength and ferocity but never question your own; you are the foundation upon which this relationship is built. You trust your leader because he trusts you; your leader would be nothing without you. You can never quit; your leader needs you.

As a follower, you are the armor that protects from the unknown. Your unwavering commitment is the boat you two will ride to shore and safety from the dangers of the turbulent sea. You are not a follower because you chose to be but because it was required of you. Without you, your partner is lost, sad, and alone. You walk by his side as the fuel to his fire that you both cannot live without.

Journey reduces multiplayer to one of the most basic types of relationships two people can have, but they’ve rebuilt it into one of the most maddening, heart-wrenching, enigmatic examples of beautiful codependency you’ll ever see. It doesn’t matter if you are the leader or the follower; applying those labels diminishes the significance of your relationship. You are one half of a whole. Without you, this gestalt does not exist.

Every emotion I’ve ever had for a sibling, a friend, a lover, or even a stranger I have felt playing Journey. By finding the bedrock upon which all other relationships are built, the game allows you to fill in the gaps with your own experiences and desires, whether you are aware of it or not. Some of you may be turned off by the blank emotional canvas presented to you where all the brushes are already dipped in affection and fellowship, but perhaps that is because you lack the trust to be a follower or the strength to be a leader. You are not playing your role for yourself. You are playing for this unknown person, this stranger that will become your light in the underground, this stranger that will become your fire on the snowy mountaintops.

This stranger that will become a physical necessity.

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Draw Nothing

Draw Something is not a great game. The fact that it went for $180 million is simply astounding (all right, technically OMGPOP went for $180 million, but let’s be honest: Draw Something is the one and only success of that company). Its merits lie entirely on the fact that it exists and hit critical mass extremely quickly. In fact, there are two other mobile games I can think of that do the same thing with comparable/better game design (visual design is another story) and more features.

The biggest problem pulling the game down (there is a bigger one that affects OMGPOP in general) is that there are zero stakes. Playing DS fills me with about as much tension as a bowl of lime Jell-O. There are just no penalties whatsoever.

There’s no time limit so you can sit and stare at a picture all you want until you break down and Google “Scrabble solver” and finally figure out it was a Pegasus and not a barrel with arms. With no ticking clock, what incentive do I have to solve the drawing any faster? I don’t know of anyone who plays DS and actually checks the stats (which is a shame because that is one of the more fascinating parts of the game). And after my first couple of days playing the game, I even stopped watching my friends both draw and guess due to the amount of joy I derived from our combined silliness no longer beating out my impatience with the game. I was simply going through the motions, drawing and guessing my time away as a lifeless husk somehow suckered into the zeitgeist.

There’s no restriction to the number of guesses you can take so if you wanted to, you could just brute force the answer. The biggest word the game has, I think, is at six letters, so with eight tiles total, you’ll only have to power through 20,160 possible combinations, which you can easily whittle down by eliminating non-real words. This is basically telling me that no thinking is required. If I’m not absolutely positive that I have a drawing figured out, who cares! There’s no gamble here. There’s no red wire/green wire moment of diffusing a bomb where you’ve narrowed the choices down to two possible answers due to so-called “art” and the clock is down to five seconds. Just keep cutting away at that bomb because guess what: it’s a dud.

There’s no problem with closing the app and restarting it to both get a new set of tiles for guessing and new words for drawing. If you are savvy enough, you can continually restart the app and cross-reference your letters each time to figure out which are used and which are not. You can also eliminate all of the fun from the game by restarting until you get words you know you can draw and that your partner can guess. These seemingly purposefully permitted workarounds render one of the two resources in the game (the other of which serves to buy this resource) completely pointless. Doing this doesn’t even end your current game streak, so why spend coins on bombs when you can just restart and accomplish the same effect?

And of course the coins also fail to serve a purpose. Since they are used to only buy either bombs or colors and bombs are utterly useless, they then are only worth anything to those players that desire an expanded palette. If you don’t, however, you are now earning nothing while accomplishing nothing. Games such as Mario and Sonic have you collect coins and rings to gird yourself against the difficulty of the game. You are collecting these shiny bits to earn lives or resilience against enemy attacks to aid you as you compete against the game, but DS has you collecting these coins for nebulous reasons. If you don’t value additional chromatic armaments or a number signifying your digital worth, then what is the point?

In fact, why play the game at all? The obvious inspiration of Pictionary is played with teams pitted against each other. DS, on the other hand, is played against one other person, and they are on your team! You aren’t trying to draw something that your partner won’t guess because then the best way to win is to not draw anything at all. This is not a game; this is a fruitless exercise in art therapy. You are only competing against the framework within which the game operates, which is to say you are fighting against the lack of an undo button and brush opacities. There are no winners and there are no losers. OMGPOP is handing out participant ribbons and 50 million people are getting one.

I’m not saying I never had fun playing the game, but my jollies were entirely the byproduct of simply interacting with my friends and people I consider to be Twitter acquaintances (Twaintances). If you had given us multiplayer Notepad, we probably would have had commensurate fun. As I said, Draw Something succeeds because it simply exists.

And now that I think of it, multiplayer Notepad? Is Google Docs a game? IS IT?!

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