Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Escapist #220: Katamari Absurdity

I’m thrilled that gaming culture magazine The Escapist has published another of my articles, which you can read right here. Everyone I ran the idea through was professional, and a pleasure to work with.

To those finding their way here from The Escapist, welcome! I’d leave out a tray of cookies, but you’re likely a million miles away. Thanks a lot, THE INTERNET.

This could have been you.

How we Precede Procedure

In an earlier post I mentioned that metaplay – or, the playing of game on several levels – doesn’t necessarily correspond to other avenues of play. And nowhere do I find that happens more than with Pokémon. There’s something about playing a game you’ve played over and over, a familiarity that gets in under your skin. When I say that there isn’t one metagame, but several, things can be divided up in different ways. Today I'll be going over the first of a couple.

The Metaprocedural: processing how we process.

One of our earliest mental skill sets is metacongnition, or “thinking about thinking.” This little gem of an abstract thought, long thought to be the sole prize of homo sapiens, is actually widespread – recently it’s been confirmed in rats.

Not like this. But close.

Following from an understanding of the process of thoughts comes an understanding sequence and causality, known as metaprocedure.

Like it or lump it, most play consists of repetition – its part of its reflexive charm, and speaks to us at our most compulsive. In this fashion, the ‘language’ of gaming is something we can absorb through play. Some of it is kinesthetic, and some is memorization, but every game contains some sum of internalization.

A game like Pokémon, then, is a smorgasbord of data. Underpinning the tried-and-true JRPG play schematic is a Swiss-army-knife of weaknesses, strengths and immunities. With seventeen elemental types to choose from and mix, the game shakes out as a hyperkinetic paper-rock-scissors. This of course sometimes leads to inanity: For example, “dragon” is a type. And it’s weak to… “dragon.” Huh.

Oh Jormundgandr, baby child, that’s your tail.

But with a few tweaks, this has been the model since time immemorial. So it isn’t just that you may enter these games with an understanding of the basic procedure of RPGs – the very cipher of combat may come pre-cracked. There is something meditative about playing a game where you have to learn absolutely nothing. Of course, peering deeps into the mechanical guts of such models does have its drawbacks. Yes, all the points of data make a beautiful line – but, taken to its conclusion, it draws you away into something purely mechanical.

From this point of view, each Pokémon is just a bundle of stats. Played as a numbers game, every variable can be controlled through methodical process – but in so doing, story disappears, and the game begins to take on an entirely different character. Yes, you could catch one Pokémon, name it, and let it be your very best friend. Or you could catch 20, release the ones with low stats, take the top few, breed them, release the ones with low stats, grind up numbers to learn certain move sets, breed those guys, release the ones with low stats, trade that final guy from one game to another to double its experience rate…

There is something satisfying about this approach, but push too deep, and suddenly it feels.. somehow unsavory. Narrative disappears, until it isn’t so much a game as it is math.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily something lamentable. Because, as everyone knows:

You're absolutely right, terrible clipart girl. Math IS fun.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Free Thing of the Week - CANABALT

Could this game be the most exhilarating single-button game in the history of buttons?


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Tougher than diamonds, rich like cream

I mentioned earlier that I thought that Pokémon, especially in its newest incarnation, was an excellent game. Now I find I have to qualify that: In many ways it is an average game.

You schlep forth, in true RPG fashion, armed only with your hopes, your dreams, and a dude in a little red ball. You force this dude to fight against other dudes – progressively bigger and badder dudes – sometimes besting them by using moves, but other times simply by hitting them until they stop moving. Ultimately you best the baddest dude yet. Congratulations! Now you’re a bad enough dude to rescue the president!

Oh yes. A thousand times yes.

After your victory, you’re treated to a speech about why you were able to climb to such monumental heights. It’s explained that your power is powered by the most powerful power of all – the power of love. Not the love between a man and a woman, or indeed, like the love between a man and a fine Cuban cigar. No, the love between a man and the vicious critters he’s trained to fight. Nowhere is it mentioned that hitting your opponents until they stopped moving might also have been a deciding factor. Your victory, you are told, is all about the love.

Yes, this is the plot of every Pokémon game, but to be fair, it’s also the plot of roughly every shonen fighting manga ever conceived. All you have to do is replace the little red balls with tremendous swords or tremendous hair or even tremendous flavours, and you’re set. Considered in a vacuum, Pokémon is just another iteration of the same game people have been sleepwalking through over and over. This doesn’t make it bad. This makes it perfectly fine – just nothing to blog home about.

The rub, of course, is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. So, Pokémon may be an average game. But it is an excellent metagame.

A while back, I had mentioned I would be looking at the various ways in which games fold back upon themselves, or draw from some essential element of play. It strikes me that Pokémon is a perfect place to start, if only because a decade’s worth of popularity has transformed it from a simple game into a play phenomenon in its own right … a huking juggernaut of funtimes.

I’m interested in the ways in which our attitudes about games and gaming directly impact how we might navigate a game like Pokémon, and the ways in which these various styles of play intersect. Within a game so widely played, fueled by merchandizing blitzes, major promotional events, and a robust tournament scene, there may not be one sphere of metaplay, but several.

To wit: Pokémon is large. It contains multitudes.

Thank you, Walt Whitman, for your contentious poems about fighting electric mice.

I'll be looking at the instances of metaplay in the next few posts... hopefully without getting all meta on you. I'm not really inclined to just hit it with theory until it stops moving. Mostly, it'll be a labour of love. And as we all know, love is powerful, with a power more powerful than other powers. But what powers that power?


- Rook