Playing the Pandemic

It’s New Year’s Eve, 2020.

To say that it’s been a pretty horrible year would certainly be an understatement, nor has my experience been uniquely horrible. In fact, I count myself very lucky to have made it through the year relatively unscathed while living in one of the areas of my state hardest hit by the pandemic (at least initially).

This year has been terrifying, exhausting, and more than a little surreal. Since both my kids and I have medical conditions that could have increased our risk from the virus, I basically haven’t left my house in seven months. Some people I know have gotten sick. Some have died.

There’s a lot to process, and I’m not really sure where to start. I don’t know that anything could have prepared me for this past year, or even how to describe it in retrospect. Since my lived experience is struggling to provide a sufficient frame of reference, I thought I might turn to a virtual analogue to make sense of it instead. In that spirit, here’s my attempt to sum up the experience of living through 2020 in a videogame.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the first games that came to mind was Pandemic II, a popular Flash game from 2008 where you play as a disease with the goal of wiping our humanity. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t the only person to think of this game when the COVID-19 outbreak hit. Traffic to the game’s website increased 3500% in the beginning of March.

Though certainly not the most accurate of simulations, it’s a good tool for getting people to think critically about disease spread, especially the idea of transmission. The game is actually fairly hard, since it becomes impossible to win if any countries are able to effectively quarantine themselves before the disease arrives. Nothing emphasizes the effectiveness of a total lockdown quite like Madagascar closing its only port.

Of course, the part of Pandemic II that seems most unrealistic in retrospect is how logical your human opponents are. If your disease is airborne, people start wearing masks. If your disease infects the water supply, governments start handing out bottled water. And if Madagascar goes into lockdown, absolutely no one is getting in.

In contrast, a fair amount of the spread in my area (and around the world) has been from people deliberately defying health guidelines, often for incredibly stupid reasons. For a virus, it turns out that real life is, in fact, easy mode.

Another game that came to mind was Deus Ex. In this dystopian future, a global plague called the “Grey Death” is ravaging the world population. However, we see early on that it’s the poor and the underprivileged that are the hardest hit.

Deus Ex also has a very 2020 vibe for other reasons. It’s set amidst civil unrest, police brutality, and billionaires infiltrating democratic institutions in an attempt to delegitimize them. It actually manages to check a surprising number of boxes for horrible 2020 elements.

Since Deus Ex is also an amalgam of every conspiracy theory the developers could possibly cram together into a single narrative, it likewise manages to somewhat capture a very different aspect of the past year’s discourse. Playing Deus Ex not only allows you to step into many of the horrible realities that people lived through in 2020, but also many of the lies that were perpetuated by right-wing figures. It’s got shadowy deep state actors controlling the world. It’s got a lab in China manufacturing the virus alongside its cure. It’s got evil AI controlling the Internet. I guess the idiots storming Area 51 actually happened in 2019, but Deus Ex has wacky Area 51 stuff too.

Surprisingly, the videogame moment that most summed up my frustration and disbelief with the state of affairs in 2020 was not a game about global pandemics or political machinations. Instead, it was Majora’s Mask. This moment, as Twitter user TianiPixel pointed out, occurs when the player walks in on an argument in the mayor’s office.

At this point in the game, the town is on the verge of being crushed by the very conspicuous and angry-looking moon that is heading straight for them. Most of the townsfolks have already fled in terror, and the town guard are asking to evacuate the few remaining citizens. However, the annual town carnival is scheduled to begin, and the head of the committee refuses to leave.

There is a giant rock heading straight for the town. It is visible from literally everywhere. AND IT HAS A GIANT EVIL FACE ON IT!

This is one of those bits of dialogue that even as a kid, I thought was pretty ridiculous. I mean, no one could be that stupid when disaster is literally staring them in the face…right?

Man, 2020 has really made me reevaluate what counts as “unrealistic.”

2021 has already reached the east coast and will be here in another three minutes. I am ready for this accursed year to be over.

Good luck to you all in the year ahead.

Virtual Authenticity

Last fall, I attended the Virtual Identity Summit in Park City, Utah, which brought together a wide assortment of people working in virtual reality.  There were a lot of topics discussed at the summit, from educational uses of VR, to art pipelines, to monkey-controlled robots (which is always a fun topic).  The main theme of the event, however, was the relationship between virtual reality and identity.

Much of the conversation revolved around the common issues around anonymity and the Internet, namely, that anonymity (or at least the perception of anonymity) shields people from accountability for their actions, removing the consequences for antisocial behavior.  Interactions in virtual reality are still a form of Internet-based communication, but the immersive nature of VR provides a much more visceral experience.  While many researchers at the summit were doing really interesting work with these particular affordances of VR technology, the question underlying many of the presentations was how to prevent the toxic behaviors that exist in the YouTube comments section from becoming a swarm of virtual characters yelling in your face in a much more literal sense.

Despite the varied approaches to thinking about identity, and particularly the nature of identity within a large network, I was somewhat surprised that all of these interpretations of identity relied heavily upon the assumption of an essential Cartesian self—the authentic “true self” that lies at the center of our being, beneath the pretense and masks that we present to other people.  Several of the speakers, particularly Peter Rubin of Wired, noted that identities, particularly when mediated through something like the Internet, are plastic.  Yet when returning to the practical concerns of preventing abuse, the conversation always returned to figuring out how VR could get at its users’ true, authentic self.

Virtual Reality Pods at the MallThere were, of course, many differing opinions on how technology should try to get to its users’ authentic self.  Rubin suggested that anonymity on the early Internet allowed people to have the confidence and safety to express their inner selves, with chatrooms taking on the role of confessionals.  This vulnerability led to deep friendships that formed incredibly fast, though it was often difficult to translate these relationships to more meaningful contexts, as meeting your Internet friends in real life was usually awkward.  Face-to-face relationships, by contrast, develop at a slower pace.  He argued that when meeting people in person, relationships form slowly as they get to know our outer selves while we keep our true selves private until we feel safe.  For Rubin, VR has the potential to be a middle ground—affording safety in the fact that you can always take the headset off, while also allowing for more intimate, embodied, and authentic interactions.

In stark contrast to Rubin’s view on the vulnerability that is possible with the safety of anonymity, Michael Eisenberg reiterated the more common perspective on anonymity on the Internet, namely that shielding people from social consequences brings out anti-social and unethical behaviors.  He illustrated his point by referencing the story of the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic, wherein a just man and an unjust man are each given a ring of invisibility.  The question is that with no societal consequences for wrongdoing, why would the just man do anything different from the unjust one?  For Eisenberg, the lack of social context brings out the worst in humans.  The way to get at a person’s authentic self, he argued, was through the social governance that comes with eye contact, touch, and instant feedback and accountability.  Rules create positive identities (and for Eisenberg, authentic identities are inherently positive), while lack of rules creates destruction.

Ultima IV CardsIdentity and authenticity take on an interesting context in VR, though a headset is certainly not required to play around with such concepts.  The interactive nature of videogames inherently intertwines them with such questions through the relationship between the player and the player character.  It’s perhaps not surprising that some of the games that deal with the question of identity most directly are also games that experiment with game systems dealing with ethics.  Both Ultima IV and Uplink have unique player creation systems designed to encourage the player to identify much more closely with the player character.  In Ultima IV, the player’s character is created by presenting her with a series of ethical dilemmas during a fortune telling.  By navigating scenarios where different values are pitted against each other, the game attempts to determine what value is most central to the player’s identity.  In Uplink, creating a new character is depicted as creating a new account for a remotely accessed computer system.  Although the game is technically set in the future (the distant year 2010!), it suggests that the player is actually logging into a remote server and from there hacking real computers around the world.  In both cases, the games try to make the player feel like she is playing as herself1.  While these games are certainly excellent vehicles for ethical reflection in relationship to one’s identity, they don’t provide us with much of a roadmap for where we want technologies like VR to go.  Will strapping on a pair of goggles put us in a confessional booth, or will it hand us the magical ring we read about in Plato?

Of course, to be fair, the argument in Republic that a just man is only just because society is watching and judging him is not made by Plato himself.  That particular argument is made by Glaucon, who is essentially playing devil’s advocate as a foil for Socrates, whose position is that justice in itself is profitable for whoever practices it.  Socrates eventually refutes this argument, arguing that justice is good for your mind whether or not you receive external rewards.  Furthermore, he argues that as a matter of practicality, no one can completely shield themselves from society, so justice is ultimately always more profitable than injustice2.  Thus, if we attempt to draw a conclusion from Plato’s perspective, a truly just man would act justly whether he did so under conditions of anonymity or visibility.  This doesn’t give us much insight into the question of authenticity.

Just a few weeks after the Virtual Identity Conference, I had the serendipitous opportunity to speak with Rachel Dubrofsky, who has done extensive work relating to the topic of authenticity in the media.  Not surprisingly, ideas about anonymity and surveillance come up a lot in media depictions of authenticity.  The setting of the film, The Hunger Games, for example, is one of ubiquitous surveillance.  Katniss, the main character, is contrasted with the other participants in the games by being her true, authentic self on camera, while the others put on a performance in an attempt to gain advantage over each other:

The magic of a scripted film is that it can fictionally represent life without cameras, in this case enabling the articulation of Katniss’s consistent behavior across disparate spaces in ways a [Reality TV] show cannot: we see Katniss at home with her family and friends, in The Capitol, then in the surveiled space of The Games. The film format and the foregrounding of the contrived context of surveillance of The Games show Katniss seamlessly performing authenticity by behaving instinctively and without artifice, exhibiting consistency across disparate spaces. Carried over into The Hunger Games, the ethic of authenticity—verified through surveillance, central to the [Reality TV] genre—suggests a transmedia trope of likeability, deservingness, and heroism in U.S. culture that exceeds the bounds of the [Reality TV] genre.3

A Performance in VR ChatThis privileging of the non-performative “true” self, while deeply ingrained in Western culture, has a dubious effect on the message of the film.  Katniss chooses to do many extraordinary things—supporting her family through poaching, defying the oppressive government, and ultimately outwitting corrupt officials.  As Dubrofsky argues, however, the traits that come out naturally and are therefore signaled by the film as the most authentic for the character tend to be more traditionally feminine traits, such as caring for children and the injured3.  In light of such issues, is authenticity really the trait we should be valuing the most?  What do we even mean by authenticity?

In a special issue of the Review of General Psychology that came out just over a month ago, Roy Baumeister looked at authenticity research to see if the idea of a true self was even a useful concept4.  The term “authenticity” tends to be used in very different ways in academic literature, and even more when you explore how the average person understands it.  One of the more troubling implications from his research, however, is that people associate the idea of authenticity less with their true inner nature and more with what society regards as good:

One of the most irksome findings for authenticity researchers was that American research participants, including introverts, generally reported feeling more authentic when acting extroverted than introverted. America is an extroverted society, but still, it is disturbing that even introverts felt more authentic when acting extroverted…If authenticity means acting in accordance with one’s true self, then introverts should by definition feel more authentic when acting in introverted manner….To spell it out, the troubling implication is that people associate authenticity with doing what society regards as good rather than with what their own true inner nature dictates4.

Based on Baumeister’s research, the question of how we uncover a person’s true self is missing the point because what we think of as our “true self” doesn’t actually exist.  Indeed, our true self isn’t even necessarily our best self as much as it is the version of ourselves that we think others want to see.  Consequently, if our goal is to come up with practical guidelines on how to shape VR into a more useful and robust system of communication, we need to have a different paradigm.

VR PosterWhile the assumption of an essential, stable, yet unverifiable internal self permeated much of the discussion at the Virtual Identity Summit, there were a few speakers who were able to talk about identity in original and productive ways.  Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life (who had a lot of interesting things to say about the future of VR), talked about identity in terms of individual pieces of identifying information that a person owns, such as a driver’s license or an email address.  He argued that when looking at identity as a network of discrete facts, the key challenge of VR is giving users the ability to control their level of disclosure in different situations, as no one wants to be a walking LinkedIn profile all the time.  He also moved to disentangle the question of identity from that of trust.  As a matter of practicality, no one is going to have a single virtual identity.  Most people on the Internet already don’t and, at least to a certain extent, we don’t even really have that in real life.  People might have virtual identities for work, school, and family, in much the same way that people have multiple email or Twitter accounts. If, however, VR becomes as important and pervasive in our society as Rosedale imagines, we need to manage it in a very different way.  Imagine trying to hold an actual town hall meeting with a member of congress if half the people in the room were the VR equivalent of newly formed Twitter accounts.  Rosedale argued that the solution to this problem was for every identity to be associated with a measure of trust, though he warned against centralized systems of surveillance like U.S. credit scores or China’s social credit system.  His proposal was for a system that was open, distributed, and flexible, for example, giving someone the ability to filter out all but the identities of people trusted by their first-order friends.

My favorite take on dealing with practical questions of identity and authenticity in VR was probably that of Brittan Heller from Harvard, who spoke specifically about the question of harassment.  Rather than talking about how to make VR a safe and useful space by finding a way for the technology to access users’ true, authentic selves, she focused on behaviors, not individual speakers.  She noted that on Twitter, for example, 80 percent of the people who break the rules are doing so for the first time and could easily be guided away from such behaviors in the future, often just by informing them about the rules (because chances are they haven’t read the fifty page long terms of service).  The vast majority of abuse comes from the other 20 percent, who are persistent abusers and among them, even smaller segments of that group have an outsized level of influence due to the architecture of the system.  Leading up to the 2016 presidential elections, her group found that the millions of anti-Semitic tweets directed at journalists, which had a reach of 10 billion accounts, were coming from only 1,600 users.

One of the interesting points that Heller made was about using social connections, engaging bystanders, and applying positive peer pressure to establish group norms.  I think in many ways, this gets at many of the points that both Rubin and Eisenberg were trying to get at with their various perspectives on anonymity, vulnerability, visibility and accountability.  In Heller’s model, however, the goal is not to use social connections to either bring out or suppress some some innate character attribute of the individual.  Instead, the building of social connections is the goal in itself.  While she mentioned that people have created APIs and plugins that contextualize users’ actions within broader social conditions (by, for example, stopping and explaining the historical significance of a slur before someone sends it), she encouraged developers to rely on humans, rather than machines.  This point goes both for abusers, who often acknowledge in retrospect that they didn’t realize the impact their behaviors had on an actual person, as well as for victims, who often feel further dehumanized when their appeals for help are endlessly routed through automated systems without anyone hearing them.

Shader Magic in VR ChatThe idea of social connections as the basic unit for building communities in VR was probably the idea that resonated most with me from the whole conference.  While I think it’s fair to say that all of the presentations were quite thought provoking, lofty and abstract goals of finding self-actualization, building cyber-utopias, and transcending geographical barriers are better at providing inspiration than they are at providing actionable guidelines.  Indeed, while I’ve seen a lot of ambitious demos of VR and AR technologies over the years, I’d never really considered getting my own system until I saw Ron Millar demonstrating VR Chat at the summit.  Compared to most other VR games out there on Steam and other platforms, VR Chat is a pretty simple concept.  It is literally just a program for setting up chat rooms in VR.  Nevertheless, just watching a bunch of people that met through the program hanging out, talking, listening to music, and showing off their custom shaders was really compelling.  Even though they were just a bunch of people, most of whom had never met, with avatars ranging from furries to dragons to abstract geometric shapes, many of these had begun to crystallize into more permanent, stable identities (Millar lamented the fact that he’d been using a default testing avatar for so long that now no one recognizes him unless he’s using it) with various levels of trust and respect within the community.  Though this is far from Rosedale’s blockchain-driven public trust system, I think it lends credence to his vision.

Even with all the diverse perspectives that were shared at the summit, it does feel like we’ve only begun to scratch the surface on questions of identity in VR, both from a technological and societal standpoint.  There are a lot of competing discourses about how authenticity and privacy should be handled as VR technology matures, and I hope people will continue to ask these questions proactively going forward.



1.  Designing Ethical Systems for Videogames.  Peter Christiansen.
2.  Ringing the Changes on Gyges: Philosophy and the Formation of Fiction in Plato’s Republic. Andrew Laird. Journal of Hellenic Studies.
3.  The Hunger Games: Performing Not-Performing to Authenticate Femininity and Whiteness.  Rachel Dubrofsky and Emily Ryalls.  Critical Studies in Media Communication.
4.  Stalking the True Self Through the Jungles of Authenticity: Problems, Contradictions, Inconsistencies, Disturbing Findings—and a Possible Way Forward.  Roy Baumeister.  Review of General Psychology.

The Curse of Academic Blogging

The clutter on my desk.No blog is complete without the occasional blog about why you’re not blogging, so I couldn’t consider myself a savvy blogger if I didn’t do it as well from time to time.  Although things have been pretty sparse around here as of late, I’ve been keeping myself busy around the interwebs.  In fact, I am now the new co-editor of Play the Past, along with the insightful and responsible Gilles Roy (so hopefully I can’t do too much damage over there).  I have a new article on videogames and memory that just went up on the site, as well.

I’ve managed to do a fair amount of offline writing this past year as well, including a conference paper at FDG and a couple of book chapters, not to mention the massive amount of writing that’s been going toward finishing up my coursework for my PhD.  A decent amount of that writing started as musings here on this blog, so while I haven’t been able to spend as much time around here as I would like, the little time that I have been here I consider to have been well spent.

I’m currently in the process of either completing or beginning a number of different projects, so the next few months, if nothing else, should be interesting.  Hopefully interesting goings on will translate into a few interesting posts, but I guess we’ll see soon enough…

Old Weird Games: Captain Blood

Captain Blood DuplicateMany early videogames were inspired by technological innovations.  Advances in natural language processing led Will Crowther to create Colossal Cave Adventure1 and John Carmack’s smooth-scrolling PC engine would inspire the future developers of Id Software to create the side-scrolling Commander Keen series2.  Such connections are probably unsurprising to most people, as both games seem like natural ways to explore their respective technologies.  When talking about a game that began as an algorithm to procedurally generate fractal landscapes, however, I doubt that creating an open world adventure game full of dialoge-based translation puzzles would be the first thing that most people would expect.  Of course, Captain Blood isn’t really the kind of game that fits nicely with most peoples expectations.  Released in Europe in 1988 as L’Arche du Captain Blood, the game was notable not only for pushing the graphical capabilities of the Atari ST computer,  but for blending together an eclectic assortment of game mechanics that makes it a memorable experience, to say the least.

To those familiar with videogame history, the development of Captain Blood is reminiscent in many ways of that of Doom, which would follow five years later.  As with the case of Id and Doom, the development of Captain Blood began with the meeting of two talented developers, each with a skill set that complimented the other.  In this case, it was the cinematic storytelling of Philippe Ulrich, one of the co-founders of ERE Informatique, and the low-level graphics programming of Didier Bouchon.  Although it never reached the same level of commercial success as Wolfenstein or Doom, Captain Blood was, at the time, by far the most successful game ever developed in France3.  Also like Id, the developers at ERE were known for their outrageous promotional events, several of which involved making sacrifices to their fictional god of programmers, Exxos (after whom they would eventually rename their studio).  These included such theatrics as decapitating latex aliens with an axe and smashing an Amstrad PC in the middle of the Champs-Élysées3.

Captain Blood Destroy PlanetThe most conspicuous point of departure between the two studios is the place of narrative in the design process.  While the explicitly narrative elements of Doom consist of little more than the single screens of dense text that await the player at the end of each episode, the story of Captain Blood begins with a seven chapter novella included in the box.  Although the story of Captain Blood is still the same kind of nihilistic macho fantasy that appeals to angsty teenage boys, it takes a very different approach.  In Doom, the player can run around killing and destroying everything in the game because everything of value has already been ruined – the only humans you meet have been turned into bloodthirsty zombies and even the environment around you has been twisted and corrupted.  In Captain Blood, you encounter dozens of different aliens, each with their own distinct speech patterns, personality, and relationships.  You are also given the ability to casually nuke their entire civilizations from orbit.  While such decisions should probably give the player pause, she is insulated from emotional attachment with these characters through the framing fiction of the game.  Blood never speaks to any other creature in person, but rather sends biomechanical drones down to the surface of the planet while he remains safely on his starship.  If you read the lengthy backstory before booting up the game, you learn that Blood is in turn merely the avatar of a computer programmer that was sucked into his own game.  Thus, when the player destroys an entire planet in Captain Blood, she is merely playing as a programmer, who is playing as a cyborg, who is watching through a drone as it kills people who are, themselves, a fiction within a fiction.  Since the core of the game is all about communication and relationships, I actually find the protective layers of proxies within proxies to shield the player from becoming too immersed in the game world to be one of the weaknesses of the overall experience.  Although allowing Blood (and therefore, the player) to have a more real connection with other characters in the game might have taken the fun out of joyriding around the galaxy committing genocide, it would have made the decisions made throughout the game seem more consequential.

The objective of the game is for Captain Blood to track down and eliminate five clones of himself that were created during a hyperspace accident.  These clones can’t simply be killed from orbit, as each possesses some of Blood’s “vital fluids,” which he needs to survive.  Thus, each clone must be lured aboard Blood’s ship where it can be disintegrated and its “fluids” extracted.  His only lead at the beginning of the game is a single inhabited planet.  From there, Blood must begin gathering more clues, following one lead to the next and until each of the clones has been found.

Captain Blood SinoxThe most interesting aspect of the game from a design perspective is the UPCOM interface that is used to communicate with other characters.  This translation system, which consists of 120 symbolic icons, serves a number of important functions.  First, it serves the diegetic function of allowing the player to communicate with aliens without giving them an inexplicable understanding of  human languages (although this purpose becomes redundant with the framing of the galaxy as existing within another computer program).  Second, and perhaps more importantly, it frames the limitations of the conversation not as a limitation of the game system, but as a limitation of the diegetic system the through which the characters are interacting.  This was one of Ulrich’s primary motivations in developing the system:

I wanted to be an example and to invent new stuff that stood out … I wanted to impress the player. I wanted the extra-terrestrials to be alive in the computer. When playing The Hobbit I hated the stereotyped answers such as “I don’t understand” or “what is your name?”. The challenge was to make it intelligent. The incredible thing is that the aliens answered all questions, were funny and never repeated the same thing twice.1

UPCOM differs from other conversation systems like the keywords in Ultima VII or the menu-based dialogue trees of modern RPGs in subtle, but important ways.  Because both the aliens and the player are subject to the same constraints, Captain Blood avoids the artificiality that you get in games where NPCs can go on talking for paragraphs while the main character is only able to offer single-word responses.  The abstract nature of the UPCOM symbols gives the illusion that the aliens you communicate with are intelligent creatures that are struggling to use the system just as you are.

The UPCOM interface is also one of the most effective ways in which the game characterizes the often bizarre alien creatures that inhabit the game world.  Different species use different subsets of UPCOM icons in order to represent their language.  The number of icons available to each species becomes an indicator of their intelligence and eloquence of speech.  The less restrictive nature of the system (the full UPCOM set provides nearly a trillion different possible combinations) allows for a wide variety of conversation topics.  While some messages require a precise word order (most often with passwords, coordinates, or names), usually the mere mention of a word or phrase is enough to start a conversation.  The player’s goal is usually to prompt the character to reveal a piece of information or issue some kind of quest, but most characters will try to say something relevant to whatever you ask them.  These responses are often little more than repeating a simple maxim, such as “bad not good,” but even such canned responses vary from species to species, giving the player some sense of distinct cultures.  The Izwal value science and learning and dislike violence.  The Buggol are obsessed with politics, with certain individuals being prone to bursting into long, prepared speeches.  The paranoid schemer Yukas tends to misinterpret simple statements as veiled threats.  By limiting the conversation to a finite set of possible topics, it enables characters to say something about almost everything, in contrast to a Zork-style text parser which must keep commands very formulaic to avoid paralyzing the player with boundless freedom of choice.

Captain Blood Teleporting BuggolWhile its puzzle-like dialogue system was decidedly innovative, Captain Blood is perhaps better known for its prohibitive difficulty.  This is evident as soon as the game begins and the player realizes that there are no menus.  All the controls and commands within the game are represented diegetically as ambiguously labeled buttons on the Gigeresque console of Blood’s techno-organic ship.  Even the cursor is represented by the captain’s own withered cybernetic hand.  While this certainly makes the game seem more immersive (which, again, seems to conflict with the goal of its convoluted backstory), it sets up a fairly steep learning curve.  Despite stepping into the role of a vindictive, godlike sociopath, I think I killed far more people by mistakenly hitting the wrong button than I ever did on purpose.

The bulk of the game’s difficulty can be attributed to the conversation puzzles themselves.  Some of this was due to the intentional ambiguity of the UPCOM symbols, particularly when they were used figuratively, as in the case of names.  While a few key characters and places possess their own individual symbols in the UPCOM language, most names are simply made up of other symbols.  This leads to names like the Migrax warrior “Missile Brave”, the Sinox scientist “Brain Radioactivity,” and the charmingly named Planet “Kill You.”  With the limited list of UPCOM logograms, it becomes difficult to know that someone is referring to the Migrax “Missile Brave” and not simply trying to convey that the Migrax as a species are not afraid of missiles.

Captain Blood MigraxThe more significant issue with the design of the dialogue puzzles is much more subtle.  While the back-and-forth nature of the conversations is difficult in itself, some information will only be divulged under specific circumstances, the details of which are usually unknown to the player.  In some cases, a character will offer to divulge information after a quest or mission of some kind – often transporting them to a different location or killing one of their enemies.  Other times, there is a similar stipulation that is never stated.  Some characters won’t talk unless you bully them by abducting them and stranding them on a different planet.  Some won’t talk if a certain character is still alive.  Some characters won’t even appear to the player unless certain conditions are met, giving the illusion of an uninhabited planet.  Perhaps most frustrating of all, some characters will only reveal certain clues after a certain amount of time has passed in game, giving no clue to the player that they have something more to say nor letting her know when they’re ready to talk.

The fact that the player never knows who’s holding out on her becomes problematic if she takes the characters’ quests at face value.  In most games, quests are fairly straightforward.  Although some quests are optional, each one is rewarded and generally gets the player closer to victory.  In Captain Blood, however, quests often contradict one another as various factions try to eliminate one another.  Likewise, many characters lie, and hard-earned information occasionally ends up being worthless in the end.  Naively completing every mission will quickly end up killing characters with information necessary for completing the game, leaving the player stranded and confused.

The idea of unreliable information from NPCs is actually something I enjoy exploring.  The first time I remember this happening in a game was during one of the Hong Kong missions in Deus Ex.  Although the character who issued the quest was highly suspicious, RPG genre conventions convinced me that the objective was genuine.  The difference in Deus Ex is that as soon as I tried to complete the dubious quest, alarms went off, guards rushed in, and I knew that I’d been played.  In Captain Blood, there was no way to know if the planet I had just destroyed or the alien I had just disintegrated was holding some important clue that was necessary to completing the game.  It was often just as hard to determine if the reward for my grisly work would lead me toward my goal or simply into another dead end.  In a rather subversive twist, it would seem (after starting over countless times) that the best approach to playing the game is simply to holster your world destroying bioweapons and try to spread as little death and destruction as possible.

Captain Blood CanyonThe ambiguous trial-and-error aspect of the game served to compound some of its other shortcomings.  The landing sequences, which were where Bouchon’s work on the game began, are still visually interesting twenty-five years later, but quickly become repetitive.  They are similar in many ways to the space combat sequences in Star Control II, another epic adventure game that was built around an arcade-like action sequence.  Although the action sequences in Star Control appear even more frequently, they constantly introduce new ships and new weapons.  Captain Blood breaks the repetition early on by adding missile bases to most inhabited planets, forcing the player to fly low over the landscape, but this remains the pattern for the rest of the game.  While adding more variety in planetary defenses may have been overly ambitious for the Atari ST, it would have served both to keep the landing sequences interesting and to give the ship’s scanners an actual purpose.  As it is, the landing sequences make exploring new planets an arduous task, which is not usually what you want in an open-world game.

Despite the success of Captain Blood and the developers’ plans to expand on their ideas with an even more involved sequel4, Exxos would be a short-lived studio.  Exxos, like Id, would clash with its publishers over profits and royalties, but in the case of Exxos, the publishers would win.  Some lackluster sequels would eventually be produced, but none would prove as innovative as the original.

Captain Blood is certainly one of the more obscure games from which I draw inspiration, but I’m still surprised at how original it seems after twenty-five years and how relevant it is to contemporary game design problems.   Not that Skyrim or Fallout would be improved by adding a complicated system of logograms every time you try to speak to someone, but it’s interesting to think what these sorts of systems might have become if they had been iterated upon as much as the ideas from Doom.



1. Replay: The History of Videogames.  Tristan Donovan.
2. Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture. David Kushner.
3. La saga des jeux vidéo. Daniel Ichbiah.
4. Le retour des héros. Tilt (March 1988).

Terraforming in the South China Sea

DredgingOne of the things that I find most fascinating and engaging about videogames is their capacity to serve as interactive thought experiments.  Games can be ways of making explicit (or more often implicit) arguments, ways of trying to understand the past, or even ways of getting players to reflect upon the present.  As such, I tend to enjoy games that experiment with new mechanics and new ways of looking at existing problems.  In an industry that tends to focus on polish and incremental improvement, this isn’t always as common as you might think.  While genre conventions help to create specialized systems of meaning, allowing players’ skill at one game transfer to another and thereby target existing audiences, they also canonize certain mechanics to the exclusion of others.  For this reason, despite greatly enjoying highly polished modern games like Civilization V or Mario Kart 8, I frequently find myself playing quirky indie games or old DOS games on a more regular basis.

One of the games that I’m constantly turning to as an example (both here and at Play the Past) is Master of Orion, a turn-based strategy game released in 1993.  Although almost certainly influenced to some degree by earlier strategy games like Civilization (not to mention being highly influential to many later games), the original Master of Orion was created before many of the conventions of the genre were firmly established.  For example, Master of Orion eschews the standard Civ-style tech tree, one of the most fundamental elements of the genre, for its own unique technology system.  Although less intuitive for many players, this system is, in many ways, a much more interesting way of thinking about technological development.

PlanetologyThe science fiction setting of Master of Orion is also a major factor in its departure from other strategy games.  While games based on historical settings have to worry about conforming to players’ expectations and understandings of history (or risk provoking endless Internet arguments over whether or not a spearman should be able to destroy a tank), games set in a hypothetical future allow a great deal more creativity on such matters.  The upside is that this lack of context enables innovative solutions, such as Master of Orion’s technology system.  The downside is that while fantastic elements like Gatling lasers and terraforming are fun, they are rarely have relevance to the present.

Of course, sometimes the present surprises you.

In 1990, China finished construction of a single two-story building on Fiery Cross Reef, a coral reef in the South China Sea that lies about 1,300 km south of the Chinese mainland.  The tiny outpost had taken several years to complete and remained nearly unchanged for almost a quarter of a century. In late 2014, however, China began a massive land reclamation project, dredging up sand from the nearby sea floor and dumping it onto the reef, which until that point had remained almost completely submerged at high tide.  In less than a year, Fiery Cross had gone from a few tiny rocks to the largest island in the Spratly Island archipelago.  With multiple cement factories, a large harbor, and numerous other support buildings, it is now an important hub facilitating the construction of several other Chinese “artificial islands.”

Fiery Cross ReefWhile China certainly isn’t the first to engage in land reclamation in the South China Sea (Vietnam, for instance, had been increasing the size of West Reef and Sand Cay for several years), the scope of their operation far surpasses that of any other nation in the region.  Perhaps more troubling to other claimants in the Spratlys, however, is the nature of China’s operations.  Whereas other nations have made small increases to islands that were already occupied and had substantial permanent structures, China is creating massive islands out of completely (or almost completely) submerged reefs.  By occupying territory that was previously considered uninhabitable (or at least legally unclaimable), China has grabbed a number of strategically important locations and made any attempt at drawing international borders considerably more difficult.

This unconventional form of expansionism is unprecedented, especially in peacetime.  China has previously asserted its territorial clams in the nearby Paracel Islands, but this took the form of more traditional military force.  In contrast, China’s recent expansion into the Spratly Islands has thus far been non-violent, relying on technological means to expand their territory.

Orion StarmapAlthough this situation has no obvious parallels in recent military history, this situation should seem very familiar to anyone who has played Master of Orion.  It also highlights one of the unique game mechanics that sets Master of Orion apart from more conventional strategy games.  In games like Civilization, the expansion phase occurs at the very beginning of the game.  Once a player has pushed her borders out until they meet those of her neighbors, there is no other way to push those borders further short of force.  This zero-sum game is how we normally think of international politics.  In Master of Orion, however, most players only possess the technological ability to colonize half of the planet types at the start of the game.  In order to colonize these more hostile planets, players must develop more advanced planetology techniques.  This means that players spend much of the game with uninhabitable planets sitting idle in strategic locations or even within their own borders.  Thus, a player with an edge in planetology technology can swoop in and colonize a planet that had essentially been worthless to the other factions, terraforming it into a valuable strategic location.

SpratlysSo if we use Master of Orion as a way to think about the Spratly Islands in the same way that we use Civilization or even Chess to think about more traditional confrontations, what kinds of conclusions might we draw?  Perhaps the most obvious effect of such aggressive planet (or island) grabbing is an extreme strain on diplomatic relations, which has already been seen as perhaps the most immediate effect of China’s island building campaign.  In Master of Orion, this situation is usually only aggravated with the movement of ships and personnel throughout the disputed territory.  I also think that it’s probably safe to say that the situation in the South China Sea will likewise become even more complicated once the airstrips and defensive positions on their islands are completed and the movement of ships, planes, and troops begins to increase.  It’s also difficult to see a peaceful resolution to this tension unless one side decides to abandon their position in the island chain completely.

Eco RestorationAnother issue that is often overlooked in the Spratly island conflict is ecology.  In Master of Orion, ecology is a major focus of the game.  Ecology is one of the five areas in which planets can spend resources and of the six fields of research available to the player, one, planetology, is almost exclusively focused on ecological issues such as waste cleanup and terraforming.  While a player has the option to ignore ecological concerns and channel those resources toward military or industrial projects, such trade-offs are rarely beneficial, even in the short term.  Industrialized planets can generate massive amounts of pollution, and the buildup of this industrial waste can reduce the habitability of a planet, even killing off its population if the pollution becomes too extreme.  For this reason, focusing research on planetology is just as important to the player as researching weapons or propulsion.  A healthy empire requires healthy planets.

While China’s island building will make these locations more useful for military and civilian purposes, the process not only buries the former reefs under thick layers of sand and concrete, but also fills the surrounding waters with the thick sediment that accompanies the dredging process.  Considering the great biodiversity present in the reefs of the Spratly Islands, the ecological damage could have devastating long-term effects on marine life in the Spratlys and in surrounding regions.  This directly impacts many Southeast Asian countries that depend heavily on fish from the South China Sea to feed their populations.  Since one of the primary benefits for China of laying permanent claim to the Spratly Islands would be the extension of their Exclusive Economic Zone, which would grant them exclusive rights over natural resources like fish and oil, even a successful takeover of the region could prove to be a Pyrrhic victory if measures aren’t taken to protect biodiversity and restore reef habitats.

Of course, looking at the Spratly Islands conflict through the lens of Master of Orion is only one way of looking at it, but it’s a different way of looking at the situation than we would get through many modern games.  It’s also one reason why I enjoy games that depart from the standard design formula and do things differently.  They give us new ways of thinking about the world and a broader vocabulary with which to discuss it.

South China Sea photographs from Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.