A disappearing history.

Among the many badly kept secrets of the games industry was the existence of a multiplayer mode for BioWare’s Mass Effect 3. Officially announced recently details are still scarce though what has been revealed is that the co-operative multiplayer mode will connect with the single player game. Co-operative play will increase Galactic Readiness which will in turn impact the outcome of the single player game. There will be ways of increasing Galactic Readiness in the single player game itself alongside other platform specific means, Facebook or XBLA tie in games seem like the most obvious possibilities.

With rare exceptions I think providing additional options for players is to be lauded and as such there’s nothing about this news that has made me question the likelihood of purchasing Mass Effect 3. Of interest is what happens to the experience of playing Mass Effect 3 months or maybe even years after launch. Recently I replayed Mass Effect 2, over eighteen months from its initial release the availability of DLC means that there is now more content, more options, on offer than existed when I originally purchased the game.

It’s an assumption, but I feel a justified one, that eighteen months after the release of Mass Effect 3 notably less people will be playing the co-operative portion that were doing so eighteen days after release. Therefore through the simply act of delaying their purchase of the game, or by deciding to replay a game, players may well find that some of the options available to them for raising Galactic Readiness will not be as viable as they once were.

Thinking further out two or three years from the release of Mass Effect 3 will the servers for the co-operative multiplayer mode still be running? With a likely dwindling player base and no new revenue streams the financial benefits of turning the servers off will be high. This is not uncommon for EA, I cannot play Mercenaries 2: World in Flames because, unable to contact the now offline EA servers, it hangs at the main menu. If somebody wants to play Mass Effect 3 several years after release certain options may not simply be less viable they might not be available at all.

This is already a problem when it comes to multiplayer games, but the growing integration of multiplayer elements with the single player portion of games is creating a new issue. When the two modes, multiplayer and singleplayer, are separate then they are effectively two distinct, albeit similar texts. In time one may text made remain readable, which is to say extant in a playable form, the other not. That is the problem we have right now; I can still play the single player of Halo 2 but not its multiplayer. When the two modes are interconnected as they will be in Mass Effect 3, or as a better example Dark Souls, then it can no longer be treated as two distinct texts rather it is one text with multiple facets. In five years even if I can find or emulate the hardware to make these texts readable, one or more of those facets will still remain unavailable. Through actions beyond my control a game I have purchased will have been altered, instead of the future bringing more content in terms of DLC or Mods, the future will bring less as servers are shutdown and options once available disappear.

As a consumer this is problematic, but as a student or historian of game design this is tragic. Hardware alone already makes the play and study of games older than a decade or two a challenge, but imagine students of game design in the next decade attempting to examine and learn from a game like Dark Souls? How much of what makes that game unique will be lost when players are stripped of the ability to interact with each other?

If this doesn’t seem like a big issue imagine the state of cinema if film students were only able to study films made in the last two decades? Or if English Literature students no longer have the ability to examine the works of Shakespeare or Twain? What might be lost?

The answer is not to abandon multiplayer or avoid attempts to cross-pollinate multiplayer and singleplayer, to do so would be reactionary and narrow minded. A better answer might be for developers and publishers to rely on the community to maintain these games and their servers if it ceases to be financially viable to do so. No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way is nearly ten years old, the official servers for it were shutdown over three years ago, fortunately thanks to the dedication of members of its community it’s still possible to play online. Obviously when it comes to console games, there are factors beyond the control of the developers and publishers that need to be worked out if the severs for certain games are to remain active in some fashion. But isn’t the preservation of gaming history worth solving those issues? If not then we are saying that gaming in all it’s forms does not deserve preservation and I don’t think I have the language skills necessary to describe how angry that idea makes me.

ADDENDUM:

The potential method described to preserve games is one among many, and only deals with a single aspect of the  larger issue of preservation. Though it may well be possible to preserve the ability to play a multiplayer game long after its release, this does nothing to preserve the experience of playing that game at launch, or the time you spent playing it for six straight hours with your best friends. Games exist to be played and the inability to preserve those specific experiences is noteworthy. These are larger problems of preservation and archival, daunting problems that I have no solution for. I’ll admit I avoided dealing with them in order to end on a somewhat positive note, this may have been naive of me.

The Perma-death interview.

A large part of what fascinates me about games is the subjective nature of the play experience itself, the notion that no two people will have the same experience even within a heavily scripted game. Recently Australian blogger Ben Abraham has been gaining attention for his decision to partake in an “iron man” play through of Far Cry 2, no reloading when his character dies the game is over. The manner in which this player imposed boundary altered his play experience is something I’m particularly interested in. Fortunately Ben was kind enough to answer some questions I had:

1. In your own words, what prompted your decisions to play Far Cry 2 in this fashion?

I think the initial desire was to impose a new way of playing Far Cry 2 that would lead to more of those fun moments where it feels like something is really hanging in the balance – where the outcome is hinged upon my performance. I thought that perhaps by imposing a limit of a single life, it would add more drama and weight to my actions and performance in the game and ultimately provide me with a more satisfying experience.

In that sense it was for entirely selfish, experiential reasons – I wanted to enjoy and continue enjoying Far Cry 2 having played it a lot already.

2. Having completed Far Cry 2 previously, can you describe some of the ways in which permadeath changed the way you approach the game? Have you noticed yourself doing things differently when you played it under normal conditions?

I guess the approach I took reflected my desire to have a fun experience, and so I took it very seriously and played it quite safe at first. When the initial sense of tension and danger wore off I experimented a bit more, deliberately courted danger a little bit. When playing normally however I probably strode right up to danger and punched it in the face, trusting luck and skill to get me by, but by prioritizing my survival I became much more reserved and cautious. Kinda boring, really.

Practical things that changed how I played included picking safe options, and utilizing all the points on my “How To Kill People More Effectively” strategy. Basically any time there was a dangerous option and a boring safe option, I took the safe one.

3. Do you think this type of play through is something you could imagine doing for a game you had never played before?

I don’t think so. Far Cry 2 is quite forgiving of your mistakes in the sense that if you ‘die’ with a rescue buddy around, you get a second chance. That’s one of the reasons I thought it would be feasible for an ordinary non-uber player like myself to complete Far Cry 2 without ever dying.

4. Is there something specific to the design of Far Cry 2 that makes it more suitable to this type of play through than other games? Do you think Far Cry 2 was a good choice for what you were intending to do, and if so why?

I think the buddy rescue system is one of the best ways of dealing with the problem of lost and wasted game-time that you get by forcing players to reload and try parts of a game again – and I do think that it is a loss. Jesper Juul talks about ‘time lost’ as a punishment in a talk from GDC earlier this year.

5. You have been describing the events that took place from a first person perspective (With a notable exception), and as a connected narrative, is there an explicit reason for this approach to the presentation of your experience?

Part of the attraction to the “one life” approach was that it made everything in the game more meaningful to the story – that is, never ever was an action ‘wasted’ because I died and had to start over. I had also hoped that it would add weight to every action, even insignificant ones, but as it turns out, it’s not quite that straightforward.

I wanted to write from a first person perspective because of a couple of reasons – firstly I was (and still am) increasingly bored with straight essay style writing about games. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the good ones, and they’ll certainly always have their place, but more and more I’m finding myself attracted to the kind of games criticism that involves some application of creativity of expression. I’m a bit of a desperate fan of Kieron Gillen’s somewhat controversial New Games Journalism style of writing because it doesn’t just give permission to a writer to be creative, it demands it. I think a lot of people mis-read it back in the day and took it as meaning that was the only way you were meant to write about games, but it’s not meant to be so constrictive – it’s just another tool in the critic’s toolbox.

I also thought that the first person perspective would let me describe how I was feeling while playing it, and as the whole point of the exercise was to change the experience, keep it new and interesting, that seemed the logical choice.

6. The concept of adding additional rules to a game is not a new one: “Iron Man” runs, “Speed Runs”, various approaches have been adopted when playing Thief: The Dark Project: “Ghosting” etc. From your own perspective why do you feel your play through has garnered so much attention? How much of it do you feel is because of the way your have presented your experience? Do you feel people are more interested in the story of your play through, or the concept of what you are doing itself?

I think Kieron Gillen when he linked to the story in RPS’ Sunday Papers hit the nail on the head when he said he wished he’d thought of it. Like you say, self imposing additional rules and constraints isn’t new, but the idea of writing about them is still not done particularly often, and almost never with a view to how it changes the experience.

So in that respect I think it’s the concept that made people sit up and take notice. Whether they stuck around and enjoyed the story, I can’t be sure, but if it’s any indication comments have dropped off slightly in the later episodes while pageviews are still holding steady at somewhere around 100 a day.

When thinking about whether people are explicitly interested in the story, the question I’ve got to ask is “What really is the permanent death story?” Is it the experience that I, the player, have in the game? Or is it the story I construct with blog posts and pictures as it’s received by readers of the blog (and eventually, in the PDF novelization)? From my vantage point as both player and reader of the story, I know that there are a lot of things that happened in the game that get cut from the written story because they either make it too long and boring, compromising the quality of the narrative, or they’re nearly impossible to convey to a reader.

How does one write about the feeling of boating down a river under the cover of darkness as the moon slides behind trees? How do you convince a reader that you really were imagining the feel of the breeze in your face, and the feel of being immersed in this environment? Does the reader even care whether or not I was engaged at this particular point or not? How do I convince a reader that the idea of a soldier who I already shot, but who was still staggering around, was going to burn to death mildly horrified me? The fact that it horrified me in a videogame at all is still amazing to me because videogames suck at making me feel anything other than a desire to collect shit or blow stuff up.

I think it’s in trying to convey these sorts of experiences and personal reactions that I draw the most inspiration from NGJ. Not that Permanent Death is even an NGJ piece, it’s not quite personal enough and it often borders on the edge of being Fan Fiction, so I guess there’s that.

7. Permanence is an unusual term to use when discussing any video game, after all isn’t every decision you make permanent? You can return, change your actions and play out the consequences of that alerted decision but that doesn’t remove the fact that at some point you did make that initial decision?

When writing my thesis last year, I downloaded a single-life speed run of Halo 2 completed on Legendary difficulty. I watched it religiously – I watched all two and a half hours of it through more than once. I think what was so attractive and mesmerising about it was that it seemed to me like this is how Halo 2 was meant to be played.

In terms of making sense within the overarching narrative and fiction, this was how Master Chief would have done it. Any time you die, you mess up and you fail to live up to the chief’s standard, so you have to repeat a section until you get it right. Why do we not see the inherent weirdness in this? I think we have this ingrained, rote-learned blindness to the fundamental strangeness of videogame narratives. We do not experience the real world in anything remotely like the way we experience the events in a videogame.

Obviously, there are lots of good reasons for some of this – if it weren’t possible to fail then where would the challenge in the game come from? I think there are some great alternatives just waiting to be discovered, but so far all we do boils down to retconning the story on-the-fly. Ideally, every game would be perfectly set at that optimum level of difficulty that made it just hard enough to stay interesting, but not hard enough that you ever die and have to repeat any sections. I think most games err on the side of un-boring and go for just a little too hard. Which is fine, but it’s hardly a perfect system.

8. In reference to the previous question, would the decision to play Far Cry 2 again after this play through mitigate the decisions you made? Is that your intent, to never play Far Cry 2 again, and therefore make this your definitive play through?

I definitely intend to play Far Cry 2 again in the future, so no, the series of events in-game that became ‘Permanent Death’ are in no way meant to be the (or even just my) definitive Far Cry 2 story-experience. For starters, they are a fantastically more boring sequence of events than I have had in even other games of Far Cry 2, so it would be doing the game a disservice to leave it at that.

I don’t think playing again would diminish the permadeath story, either. There will always be the written record that roughly equates to that in-game series of events so I don’t think it would be impacted by playing again – or even by someone else attempting the same (or similar) thing.

9. How do you feel about the fact that there is no way to prove you have actually done anything you’ve described? Have you ever considered that there is no way in which the game can confirm that you in fact have not died? Is there such a means of recording this information that I have missed?

It’s interesting, I’ve been thinking recently about what I would do if I died right before the end of the game in a brain-meltingly stupid way, by shooting myself in the face with a grenade launcher, for example. If I was tantalisingly close to the end and messed up I know I would be tempted to lie about it and just keep playing as if nothing happened – after all how would anyone know? As far as the written Permadeath story goes, it’s whatever I say it is, right?

I guess there is no way of proving that I really did all the things I said I did, except to take me at my word. I don’t know if I’d want to there to be a way of proving what I said I did was what really happened, either. I wonder if it would limit the things I could do with the written story – as in, I couldn’t get away with as much ‘sexing up’ of the story as I have so far. I’ll freely admit that I’ve added in all sorts of stuff to make the written story more readable – like adding in some imaginary reasons for why I did the things I did in game.

It’s quite boring to just say “And then I shot some dude because it feels good to click my mouse and have the little man fall over” so I often invent a motivation for the character. I think it comes back to the question of ‘What is the Permanent Death story?’, because if you’re being truly honest, there aren’t any reasons for why we do a lot of what we do in games. Why do we shoot enemy soldiers? Because we’re told we should? Are we even explicitly told that most of the time? It’s certainly not because we are afraid of dying ourselves, as would be the case in a real combat situation. So is it fair game to pretend that’s why I was doing it in the game? I think for the sake of making an interesting written story, it is.

10. Do you think if there was an Achievement for completing the game without dying (Well until the very end), this is something you would have attempted for no other reason that obtaining that Achievement? What about if there was a scoreboard recording the total play time before death, would you be interested in trying to beat the “scores” of others?

I think if there were an achievement for it I wouldn’t need to do the Permanent Death ‘experiment’/story. I’m not very interested in achievements so I may have never bothered with it, but then I may have just to get some additional replay out of the game. Who’s to say?

Actually, I take that first bit back – I may still have done the permadeath play through because it’s important to note that anyone who finishes the game already does never die – because any “narrative branch” of the story that leads to the players death, gets pruned off when they die. Your loading the game eliminates the series of events between that save and your previous death from the Far Cry 2 history and your character goes on none-the-wiser. You may know and remember, but as far as the story is concerned, no one else does because it never happened. Now, the difference with permanent death is that there are no pruned branches.

I’m not really a competitive player, so scoreboards hold next to no interest for me. If you want to play Left 4 Dead with me though, I totally love cooperation and I daresay I work harder at a game when it’s for a cooperative goal than when it’s for a competitive reason.

11. Personally where do you fall on the ludology vs. narratology debate? How do you feel your personal opinions have influenced the decisions you have made during your play through?

I think the ludology/narratology debate is worn out and as Ian Bogost says in his DiGRA keynote, even the question of whether it’s one or the other presupposes a formalist approach to the ontology of games. Realistically, my opinions on whether games are play versus narrative only really matters when thinking about games as stories or games as playgrounds and any other time of the day I’m quite happy to let games be whatever they want to be.

Bogost characterises the Ludology/Naratology debate as “a formalist rather than functionalist approach to the study of games” and by arguing over what games are we end up ignoring what games mean already.

12. A number of other people joined you in your permadeath play through at the start, I believe none of them are still playing having already died. Do you think there is anything about the way you have approached your play through that has helped you to stay alive?

I think it’s more sheer bloody-mindedness that’s kept me going. Michel McBride got bored and quit, and if you’re an experienced player it’s not that hard to stay alive on normal. A reader who started up his own blog was playing along too, but on the hardest difficulty and he didn’t last very long. For me, it’s turned into an endurance test, rather than a skill test.