Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Rulemakers, Toolmasters, and Judges: Tomorrowland, Undertale, and The Joy of Painting

Months ago I watched Tomorrowland and it got me thinking ever since about myopia of imagination and stagnation of aspiration and the vital atoms of creativity but not in the way the filmmakers probably intended. More in the way a bacterial culture might compel you to clear your throat. A respectablish filmmaker with a strong Randian streak and a writer associated entirely with deferred expectation and delayed gratification, Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof were perhaps always a pair destined to crash their weird little quantum-phase bi-plane of a movie straight into the ol' swimmin' hole. It's very difficult to imagine that this movie turned out according to any individual's expectations, including the squandered cast's, but the lack of verve and commitment from a couple of the industry's commitment legends seems to convey that they had grokked it somewhere along the way. This was likely not the film anyone set out to make but it had to be damn obvious along the way that this was the film we were getting.

The moralizing, the coyness both in the script (Is this what's going on? Wouldn't you like to know? Ah haaaaa...yes, yes it is, I'm so sorry) and to a suffocating degree in its disastrous afterthought of a marketing campaign, the job-interview-level performances, the visionless production design, all this and more could be forgiven by a hell of a lot of people. They'd write it off as the cost of summer popcorn or the price of a message worth sharing. All this might have been forgiven, sure, if, that is, any of it had been in the service of something either more novel or more noble than self-aggrandizement, as any film about the importance to the soul of man of a theme park, made by a theme park company, must be considered.

Such an effort may preach looking forward but again and again in the film it looks back to the point of being nostalgic ABOUT previously looking forward. A creed of creation and innovation has the lie put to it through paint by number plot twists, character interrelationship bingo, and some of the most absolutely perfunctory set pieces ever to grace a big budget release. No thrilling climax should make one pine for the exposition. The film sees people going outward into the world to find new ideas but the entire production is surprisingly insular. It's also completely reflective, seeing itself as a metaphor for itself, a love letter from a company to that same company, sealed with a seventy million dollar kiss. Its Message...

Sometimes a filmmaker will decide Message >> Whatever. As long as the Message is conveyed clearly, even insultingly simply or wildly exaggeratedly, then you can paint the walls any color you like and just set that chair anywhere and why don't we knock out this wall here supporting beam what the hell is a supporting beaOH GOD!!!... These are films who dare you to consider them by any other metric because to find fault with the process is to fault the Message and flag yourself as the Enemy. This is fucking teams, this is Radiohead chatroom yearbook committee church lady gossipy face fanning falderal. I have no place for it in my life and neither do you or any artist you've ever genuinely cared about. When someone is drawing a line in the sand and screaming "OR ELSE" staying on one side of the line or the other is a fucking trap designed to make you forget you can go anywhere else in the entire fuckdamning world and stand there instead.

Tomorrowland's Message is one of optimism and we know that a just and loving God either either exists or doesn't thanks to this movie, for if any more capricious or vengeful or paying-attention-a-li'l-type God of any kind hovered above us then the film and filmmakers would have all exploded into flame for taking such a cynically mercenary operation and daring to present it as a beacon of hope, promising us a chance for the future that isn't theirs to own as they pass us a plastic keychain and smile that the sun will come out tomorrow. land.

I read an article angry about truly original science fiction being overlooked in favor of laser robots and super people. But the author meant, like, truly original science fiction like Tomorrowland. Jesus Moses Mohammad. Did you know Hugh Laurie is in this movie? Because he doesn't.

One of the Dogme 95 guys once said something like, once something has been expressed on the screen there's no need for it ever to be expressed again. Like a lot of creative theory it sounds like a fantastic philosophy until you think about it much. Nevertheless it has been on my mind a little since the movie Tomorrowland wants to be - paean to the golden age of Disney both as a studio and as a perceived place of invention and innovation, a place where the future could happen or at least the future of films - got made already. By Disney. Meet the Robinsons does everything Tomorrowland attempts (and I mean right down to the far out sci fi notion of "You know what would be super convenient as a mode of transportation in the future? Bubbles") and then drowns the whole proceeding in Wonka whimsy and Dreamworks smarm. It works far better than it should and I could speculate on the reasons but I'm going to basically lay it at the lack of involvement from Damon Lindelof. There is no more consistent stamp of marketing backpedaling, no surer warning flag that I'm going to hear people just biiiitching about this forever. At least Bird made Iron Giant for shit's sake.

What would be an amazing forward vision for our commerce conglomerate? Let's take everything way more seriously and make it live action. What a philosophy for any company to embrace. What a philosophy so perfect at odds with this company's projected public image yet completely appropriate given the company's current megalithic weight and storied history of No Fuck You Guys.

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Around the same time I also played a lot of Undertale. It had me thinking a lot about violence and death and the default assumptions of most RPGs but probably not in the way Toby Something intended.

Whether you murder and loot everything or not the core gameplay remains the same. On your end you can decide whether you want to use the underdeveloped attack timing mechanic or the underdeveloped conversational mechanic but the bulk of your time in conflict will be identical: playing Galaga. Now the 'conversation system' basically fills the role a traditional magic system might. Get the right combination or use the right technique on the right enemy or at the right time and you avoid a big chunk of the attack/defend grind. They might have been fireballs instead of flirting but the effect is the same. This decision tips the hand of Undertale. Playing pragmatically, using whatever tool seems the most prudent at a given time be it steel or magic words (Please is a magic word) gets you a fun enough short little game with too many references to Tumblr anime culture. However, a lot of the content in Undertale is held hostage to the decision that every moral choice video game eventually demands: Light Side or Dark Side. Undertale's raison detre is not only forcing this choice but sitting in judgment of you for making it.

There is no right way to play Undertale but there is a Correct one. It's written into the mechanics and the script. I mean forget about the feely Think Of The Children violence is never the answer Message (which has the lie put to it because of how many times your 'pacifism' amounts to getting other people to fight for you or hoping the opponent just gives up for Some Reason), the Correct way to enjoy the game is not honing your skills on the surprising moments of intensity in their shooting gallery. It's all about playing matchmaker to mummies and shit, because then everybody has friends. Do otherwise and ugggggggh you never stop getting shit about it to the point where it brands your save files themselves. You liked the wrong thing, you made the wrong decision. You shouldn't have played this game the way you did. The ultimate evidence of this is in the simple nature of the conversation mechanic. To stay alive you have to have a lot of hand eye coordination and good reflexes. To kill your foes you need good rhythm. To make friends with them you need to pick from a list of like four options from a pop up menu at your leisure. The Correct way to encounter a monster is usually obvious and if trial and error is required in one instance it is never, ever really required for monsters of that same kind. And man I hope you really do like seeing the same monsters over and over, chief level designer for this project was Ctrl+V. The way the bosses will just throw up their hands during a Pacifism playthrough constantly assures you that you made the right call: "Well shit, I could keep fighting the Player but fighting someone is so MEAN! What kind of person would I be if I easily defeated them like some minor enemy? Can everybody hear me in the back?"

In many moments  of Tomorrowland you get a breathless sight of what could happen if these people used their powers for evil. At many more times during Undertale you get an excellent marriage of story and gameplay. Coming off of Undertale, though, it's really a tale of divorce: you can test your ability to play a game or you can test your ability to follow a storyline, and if you're playing Correctly then twain shan't meet. The morally Correct way to play is to be someone who prefers the latter to the former. That more than anything else sits ill with me: a line in the sand and a cry of "OR ELSE."

Level design is astonishingly linear for a "sprawling RPG" apart from some backtracking. Puzzles are often puzzles in name only, less tests of skill or even set pieces and more plot points. "Then a puzzle happened" is the point of the puzzle, something that doesn't stop being annoying just because the game lampshades it. Music and sound design are solid but never on the same page from one chapter to the next. I found out later that this thing was crowdfunded which explained a ton of stuff, like the absolute scattershit approach to enemy creatures. I notice that no one hyping up the game uses "You spend a lot of time fighting other people's stupid backer rewards!" as a selling point. Undertale plays like The Groove Is In The Heart: nice beat and I can dance to it but ten years from now even oldies stations won't play it. None of that is why Undertale sticks with you or why I played it like five times and was super annoyed the whole time.

Most all dichotomies are false dichotomies. Being told that there are only two REAL ways to play simply isn't true. Playing a game that insists you play by those terms and then chides you for playing by those terms is an incredibly petty sort of allegorical implement. A Skinner Box does not Game of the Year make. Even then I could be alarmingly forgiving if it served a more novel system than making your Monkey Island dialogue tree a combat mechanic. The lack of curve is where the real gall comes in. By the end of a murder run you've had to perfect your dodging and murder games using increasingly difficult gauntlets and you're a more skilled player clearing more intricate boards. There's never a grade to the sunshine path. Nothing ever gets steeper or tougher. The only thing that is truly tested is the lengths you'll go to in your commitment to this bit: now that you've committed a long work day to playing this game and we've even taken away your option to not kill this guy...will you avoid killing him anyway? Will you go the extra meter so your play through wasn't a waste of your time? As much as the idea of a conversational bullet hell gags me and as bumfuzzled as I am of the notion of a similar but better system to employ...I do wish it weren't so easy. It's disingenuous to present a case of separate-but-equal gaming experiences when one is basically an epilepsy simulator and the other has all the panache of navigating your inventory. As much love for Earthbound and SNES RPGs are in its DNA it doesn't really reflect this when putting forward what the developers and everyone promoting the game to their friends clearly consider to be their best foot.

So we have multiple games: the game they don't want you to play; the game where they make you feel shitty for playing well and "gittin gud"; the game where the play is shit but you'll feel really good about it. I'll probably play Undertale again a few times in my life, sure, but damned if I'll ever watch Tomorrowland on purpose again. That's because while Undertale has a bit of that email forward attitude where if I don't resend to 100 people I hate puppies and Jesus at least it works as a game. Tomorrowland shot for mediocrity and missed, along the way indulging in the hubris for decrying a lack of hopeful imagination in its audience, any one of whom could have thought of something more interesting to do with dimensional travel, a predestination computer, robot girls, or Hugh Laurie. It's like being called shallow in the tags on someone else's selfie.

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I got into this hobby late enough that I didn't have a shortage of games to learn about, games to read, games to try. Not only the 400 lb gorillas like D&D or Rogue Trader, or even the 300lb gorillas like Vampire and GURPS or Fudge. Weird little games. Incredibly specific games. Sometimes it was games that you could already play with a dozen or so other systems. I didn't know that at the time. Sure, some games can handle Genre, but can they handle Subgenre of that Genre? The answer was always "Likely yes" but my firsthand experience came backwards. I rifled through all the faerie candy before I realized I was eating just leaves.

Sometimes the specificity was not a question of micro genre codification, the official RPG of luchadores fighting mermen. Sometimes it was a question of result. Do you like games where you win? Where you do well? Sure, who doesn't? I don't know that TriBond was ever anything close to a good game but I usually won so I owned a copy as a kid. That's how kids think, trying to carve out spaces where we're Da Man enough to feel safer in taking a risk, surrounded by risks which felt much more dire at the time. "This is my area, and, to an extent, this is Me." The roleplaying games which offered this security in excellence had, often, very low floors for difficulty and a lot of softballing of consequences. There are quite a few where you can fail, succeed, super succeed, really holy cow succeed, or My God forever succeed. You risk astonishingly little. It isn't a barrier to entry in terms of a learning curve but it also doesn't reward greater risk or higher valor.This is a safety net of gameplay because it's not about playing the game, it's about getting through the story.

Now I play some video games on Easy. I admit it. Sometimes I just want to play with all the toys, see all the art assets, blabber with all the NPCs, and just roam around the world a minute. I don't always have to be on the clock. But I'm working within the game's restraints. When those restraints are removed and I'm not slaved to a limited amount of time spent designing and programming, and anything can happen....say in a traditional table top rpg....the chucks are taken away and I'm rolling freely down the hillside. The carefully curated story experience I was being guided through gone, I'm off the path basically immediately because I can't see the damn path at all. The only way to get things back on track is to take me by the hand and drag me along, forcibly keeping me from straying.

It's a constraint, one you can't escape through getting better at playing. You can only follow the rules more closely, color even further inside the lines. RPGs should not be pure game and they should not be pure story and they should not be pure socializing and they should not be pure chance and they should not be pure obedience and they should not be purely predictable, meeting all your expectations. They're some wonderful combination of all of these, including surprise, and in too many games whose fans tell me they're playing the right way, a better way, the only surprise involved is when my character runs into an invisible wall. I tried to cross a threshold no one anticipated and which I didn't think I'd have trouble crossing, and an artificial barrier is in my way. This is only ever reactionary, you can't see the bulwark coming and chart accordingly. Nope, you can't do that, so you don't end up learning this rule or that rule. You end up learning not to try. (This is also how the US' obscenity laws work and it drives me insane and it's the reason an agency like the CBLDF has to exist.)

And that's fine to an extent. I have been part of fantastic games that were a ton of fun with all my buds, and we were playing these same games I'm bellyaching about. Whether you think it was in spite of the game or because of the game (or just want to throw in signal noise about a good group can blah blah blah you have no thoughts to contribute go away), we did. So I'm not against them.

I am against anybody who sees someone play this game and not enjoy it and considers that a failing. A personal failing, a moral fault even. You did not like this game and it is good, therefore you are bad, and you like this other game instead therefore it is bad. Whether you are an oldschool edition warrior or a newschool yes-and-er I have no patience for anybody who tells me I can only spend my time a certain way or only enjoy certain things. Ten years of Christian school: I had enough of that to last eternity. But even these crusaders do not earn my ire, as little love as I have for any evangelist.

No, my distaste is for the games out there who only seem to exist in judgment of other games. "If you played other games and enjoyed them you were wrong" and the actual gameplay of these challengers is entirely about confronting how wrong those games were and how wrong you are. "How dare you think this, or feel this way." You don't know what I think or feel and I am not going to tolerate it. "This is how things work," pages later "How DARE you just ASSUME that's how things work!" Craphole you don't get to set the parameters and then make them my fault. And I swear to Crom if I read your introduction and you start talking about being a true hero wasn't possible until now or this is roleplaying fantasy done RIGHT I will forcibly forget your game even existed. I will employ whiskey.

The worst kept secret of RPGs is that nobody ever has to buy a book or use an established rules set. An afternoon of hashing thing out and agreeing to boundaries and agreeing to who has final arbitration in an edge case: boom. You and your friends have a RPG you can play with. You did it all the time as kids. The reason to avoid doing this is simply that your time is worth more than what it takes to work that all out yourselves. Have a short conversation, someone spends ten bucks to get a book on their phone, you're playing ten minutes later. When a game book's advice and mechanics largely come down to "You can play a game like this if you want?" that isn't very useful advice. Anybody with the gray cells to play a game already knew that without being told. You can make hanging out with your friends and making up stories into a game kiiiind of, in the same way that you can turn sex into a game kiiiiind of, but very few people (in terms of there being seven billion or so of us) are going to find the experience enhanced just because they bought a book and some dice.

[[added- Fate and Fiasco (both games I own, both games I've run, both games I've played, both games I've enjoyed) are not games that I love. They are also far from the worst offenders of what I'm talking about. But there's not that much game in either, or not more than what Quick Time Events are to modern console gaming, press A to keep playing. In both games the answer to "Can I do this" is almost always "Very likely," and they're very concerned with everybody rubbing their characters' backstories all over each other like starting a fire. It makes their Companion books oddly some of my go-to suggestions for best DMG analogues: I prefer tools over advice every time and since their core books are mostly advice their Companions have to go "Oh right, tools, here's a ton of options for both games to make them more game-y."]]

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I've been watching a lot of Bob Ross lately. The Joy of Painting. A lot of it is on Hulu and YouTube.

The entire point of Bob's show was to be a judgment free zone and to provide you with tools. The show never seems to be about teaching you to be a great painter. It was about showing off how using very simple instruments allowed one to learn the tools they would need if they were going to be a great painter some day. He said as much several times. It wasn't about turning you into a gallery artist just from copying him. It was about teaching through rote repetition to master some elementary techniques, use an editor's eye, and to do whatever the shit you feel like doing regardless of what Bob says. It was about getting someone painting at all and getting someone painting routinely as both a form of relaxation and a form of expression.

All his paintings were pretty samey but he didn't preach one way to be an artist, one way to express oneself in the medium. Any didacticism was only an imperative to do, not a screed about what to do. He also didn't think painting should only be open to the kind of people who thought and worked like them. When viewers would write in saying "I can't do that" or "That's not the kind of thing I like" he would do something else just to show them that no genre or style are mandatory for art. A viewer was left handed so Bob painted with his left hand that day: you can do this. A viewer was completely colorblind so Bob painted entirely in grayscale: you can create things. A viewer complained that Bob (who admitted his talents did not include portraiture) never did portraits so every once in a while Bob did a portrait. And it was fine. He had fun doing it. None of these were the kind of thing he himself wanted and needed out of art but he did it anyway and enjoyed every minute of it.

That's because what he really wanted and needed (apart from a 30 minute commercial for his supply line, I guess, but he would also caution that you should use whatever tools you came to prefer) was to spread the idea that there are no gatekeepers. There is nobody you have to check with before you are an artist. Did you draw something? Paint something? Sculpt something? Write something? Boom: you did it. The rest is not about making what you make look like what Bob makes or making something that people like or making something profitable. A lot of those things are fine but they aren't the point of making something. The point of making something to Bob, above all else, was making something. Maybe I'll one day get to that place with my own art. Until then I'm trying to get to that place with how I treat rpgs. (There's a floating debate about whether rpgs are art that has made the rounds recently. For all I know it's still going. I don't really care one way or the other.)

From the outside my perception of rpgs was a lot of learning rules and then showing up and following the rules and being able to argue about rules, like Risk or Monopoly. While that does happen in games it doesn't happen with the cool people. Instead it's more like "A company releases a game, someone says hey i did this weird thing with it, and then you take that and do something weirder with it and be ye player or dm that's what you bring to the table." 90% of the game is listening, asking questions, talking with your friends, and making decisions, and for the other 10% that's all rolly and rulesy you have a guy at the table who knows and arbitrates all that shit on everyone else's behalf. He rolls behind the screen because his friends trust him and he earns that trust by being fair, fun, and fluid. He's never there to judge you and he's never there to condemn you. He's actually not there to torture you and he isn't there to condescend to you. He's not there to treat you like a kid.

And the greatest thing that he can hear as a DM is "Hey would it bother you if I ran next week?" Because it means someone twigged to the only two lessons that matter in the hobby: that anybody can do this, for one, and for another that it is better in life to be the rules keeper than the Rulemaker, the kind of person who wants to dictate how you are allowed to think and feel about something and smack your knuckles with a ruler if you misbehave. The rules keepers are here to help in the same way your buddy with a copy of the bus schedule in her purse might be here to help. The Rulemaker sneers at you for being dumb enough not to have the schedule bookmarked on your phone, and is harsher when you confess you hadn't even thought of that.

The best gift a DM or judge or referee or whatever can give someone learning the ropes is to show the man behind the curtain as much as they show the great Oz. And the best gift the player can have is to get it, appreciate the demystifying beat their dj is laying down, and pick up on the groove. If that means your boogie is pretending you're a wombat on a wombat ranch and you prefer using muffins to track resources and there's no randomization and the only negative consequence in the game is eating some muffins but not as many as you like, so be it, so long as you be the muffin keeper and never the person who screams on the internet about people who like naan.