The Changing Face of the American Apocalypse: Modern Warfare and Bad Company

Jonathan McCalmont @ 31-03-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont


“Welcome to the Desert of The Real” announces Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus as he introduces The Matrix’s (1999) Neo to images of the charred remains of what was once human civilisation. A civilisation that has since been digitised and placed online while the real world crumbles beneath an ash grey sky. Morpheus’ drily ironic line would later be re-invented by the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek in an essay prompted by the September 11th attack upon the World Trade Center. Žižek’s point is a simple one : The 9/11 attacks destroyed not only some buildings, but also America’s conception of what the real world was really like. Since the end of the Cold War, the West had fallen into a cocoon of smugness created by the comforting belief that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, all opposition to liberal democracy had simply dried up and blown away; that, as the Berlin Wall came down, Humanity found itself united in the same set of desires for elected governments, human rights and consumer goods – desires for the kind of things that the American people had. It was, as Francis Fukuyama put it, The End of History. Continue reading “The Changing Face of the American Apocalypse: Modern Warfare and Bad Company”

Augmented reality fiction

Paul Raven @ 17-02-2010

augmented reality headset conceptHere’s another option to add to the list of new avenues for fiction writers worried about the possible demise of the novel – augmented reality fiction, as (quite literally) dreamed by Web2.0 maven Tim O’Reilly [via @globalculture; image by The Lightworks]:

Last night I dreamed that one of my authors (no name or face that I can recall – one of the phantasms created by the half-waking imagination) had sold me rights to a novel he’d written, and was eager for me to publish it as an ebook. It turned out that the “ebook” we were developing was actually a movie that took place in an augmented reality overlay projected directly onto the mind’s eye, mixing what the author had imagined with what the viewer was actually seeing and experiencing at the time. Every version of the movie was different, because the story had to be overlaid on what the viewer was encountering in the real world. At one point in the dream, Eric Schmidt of Google was particularly excited because a sailing scene in the story warned him about a hidden reef that his boat had to avoid.

I don’t often share dreams on this blog (at least not sleeping dreams), but this one seemed worth putting out there, because I do think that augmented reality could be an important component of a new kind of storytelling, making today’s 3D entertainments as dated as silent films.

[I guess you have to move in pretty rarefied circles to have Google’s CEO appear in your dreams…either that, or have the sort of extreme tech fetish that warrants medical attention.]

I very much doubt that O’Reilly’s the first to think of AR fiction, but having someone that influential kicking the idea around in public can only be a good thing; the dead-tree book may have a finite lifespan ahead of it, but storytelling will probably last as long as humanity itself, in one form or another.

O’Reilly continues with an anecdote about an intriguing format for theatre he once experienced, which (more so than the AR fiction idea alone) threw all sorts of interesting switches in my head:

Many years ago, I saw a play in LA called Tamara, a story set in the mansion where WWI hero and author Gabrielle D’Annunzio was held under house arrest by Mussolini. A fascinating experiment in theater, Tamara took place in many different rooms of the house. As an audience member, whenever a scene ended, you had an opportunity to follow the character of your choice to another room. No audience member could see the entire play. My wife and I went with her parents (who were back for the third or fourth time, seeing parts of the play they’d missed on previous visits), and afterwards, we all compared notes for hours about what we’d seen, and what we’d missed.

Now that’s an interesting idea… not to mention a neat way of making history a more immersive and interesting experience. Someone needs to start pitching that structure to the museums-and-stately-homes sector… *reaches for rolodex*

Of course, the layered nature of augmented reality means that there’s all sorts of potential for weird and unforeseen overlaps and mash-ups – it’s easy to think of ways to add a game component to that immersive theatre idea, for example. But there’s nothing that says you have to get permission to mesh your game with another layer. Let’s say that someone makes an AR guide to Victorian-era London, for instance; it’d be pretty easy for someone to independently develop an extra layer that threaded in a Sherlock Holmes-esque game element to the proceedings. But just think of the IP headaches that sort of mash-up is going to produce – if you develop a game on top of a free-to-view ad-supported AR layer, should you have to pay the creators of that layer? Or should the extra traffic you’re sending to it be considered payment enough? That sound you hear is the hands of a thousand lawyers rubbing together in glee…

And let’s not forget that all games can and will be gamed – for instance, you’ve probably heard of FourSquare by now (if not signed up already), but that casual geolocational contest is easily fiddled, as demonstrated by one Jim “KrazyDad” Bumgardner [via @qwghlm]. Games that are played upon games, realities that are recursively layered upon realities… things are going to get a whole lot more meta in the not-to-distant future.

Mazes & Minotaurs: dice-and-paper RPGs go meta

Paul Raven @ 12-01-2010

Thanks to Cheryl Morgan for spotting this one: it seems that even the humble roleplaying game has achieved sufficient cultural escape velocity to enter the penumbra of postmodernism. Enter Mazes & Minotaurs, a set of RPG rules that purports to be “what the first fantasy roleplaying game could have been if its authors had taken their inspiration from Jason & the Argonauts (yes, the 1963 movie with all the cool Ray Harryhausen monsters) and Homer’s Odyssey rather than from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts & Three Lions.”

Unlike many of the more postmodern experiments one encounters, the Mazes & Minotaurs gang seem fairly upfront about admitting that their creation is pastiche and homage at once. But they’ve made considerable effort to echo the styles and formats of the early iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, with the rulebooks masquerading as reprints of vintage material from the 70s and 80s; for example, the “1972 original rules” were in fact published (for free) in 2006.

M&M is apparently designed to be fully playable, so it’s not just an exercise in nostalgic fan-wank… though whether it ever acquires enough players to become a genuine “scene” in its own right is another question entirely. Perhaps a carefully-made mockumentary a la The Story of Anvil could kick-start a knowingly-ironic retro RPG revival?

The Mechanics of Morality: Why Moral Choices in Video Games Are No Longer Fun

Jonathan McCalmont @ 11-11-2009

Moral ambiguity is an increasingly ubiquitous part of modern computer game character mechanics – so why are the moral elements to gameplay increasingly less enjoyable?

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont


I remember when having a game take into account the morality of your character was something of an innovation. I remember banging my head against the Eye of the Beholder Dungeons and Dragons games appalled at the fact that something as complex as tabletop role-playing had been reduced to throwing knives at spiders in someone’s basement. The Baldur’s Gate games changed this. Suddenly, if you played an evil character good characters refused to join up with you and if you played a good character then certain solutions to problems were denied you. It was a revelation. Now it all tastes like ashes. Continue reading “The Mechanics of Morality: Why Moral Choices in Video Games Are No Longer Fun”

The geek finds its own use for things: Google Wave RPGs

Paul Raven @ 28-10-2009

Google Wave logoA few weeks back, all the major tech blogs were saying “well, Google Wave seems pretty neat, but we’re not really sure what it’s for”. Google themselves surely had a number of potential applications in mind, but whether using Wave as a platform for roleplaying games was one of them remains an unknown quantity. (It’s surely a cheaper option than that touchscreen table mod, though.)

The waves are persistent, accessible to anyone who’s added to them, and include the ability to track changes, so they ultimately work quite well as a medium for the non-tactical parts of an RPG. A newcomer can jump right in and get up-to-speed on past interactions, and a GM or industrious player can constantly maintain the official record of play by going back and fixing errors, formatting text, adding and deleting material, and reorganizing posts. Character generation seems to work quite well in Wave, since players can develop the shared character sheet at their own pace with periodic feedback from the GM.

Unfortunately for those of us who are more into the tactical side of RPGs, it isn’t yet well-suited to a game that involves either a lot of dice rolling or careful tracking of player and NPC positions. Right now, Wave bots are hard to get working reliably and widgets are scarce, which means that if you don’t want to use the standard dice bot that Wave debuted with (dice bots are an old IRC favorite) then there isn’t really another convenient option; rolls are either made with real dice and then posted on the honor system, or they’re posted in batches and a GM then uses them in sequence.

In truth, this probably isn’t all that big a surprise – from IRC and email onwards, pretty much every internet communications format has been bent to the whims of gamer geeks. But it highlights a fundamental difference in the way people approach a new technology: a journalist goes in thinking “what is this meant to do?”, but the true digital native goes in thinking “what can this do for me?”.

Both questions are valuable, of course, but I suspect that it’s the increased penetration of the latter mindset that ensures I get the bulk of my news and opinion journalism online. Whether the difference in underlying philosophies that those questions represent is a function of network architecture or a cause of it remains, naturally, an unanswerable (but greatly entertaining) point for debate… maybe we could start a Wave for that? 😉

Big up Matt Staggs, who i believe suggested this a few weeks back.

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