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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

I Have Played

I have played quite a bit over the past month, but the way I've played hasn't exactly been consistent. Oh, I think I've gotten better at playing the game the way I think it's meant to be played, and the way most (though not all) other players play it, but I've also played it a whole slew of other ways as well. I probably should have played it a year ago, when it was culturally relevant, but I have played it now, so now is when I've got to write about it. And I've got to write about it because I feel compelled to parse out all the different ways in which one might play what is really a fairly simple game.

In you are a cell among other cells floating in agar, in some sort of petri dish. As you float around you can eat nutrients, or eat the other players in order to grow larger. You control your floating direction with the mouse, and you have the ability to divide explosively in half with "space," and jettison nutrients, shrinking your size, with "w."

What's fascinating to me is that it's very possible to play the game a number of different ways that all constitute achievements of victory through a variety of self-generated goals. The strict "goal" of the game is to stay as huge as you can for as long as you can and the game does encourage this by way of the leaderboard and leveling system, which seems to be based on raw size, time spent at that size, and cells consumed. So the game does have rewards--in the form of skins and a minutely larger starting mass--that encourage certain playstyles, but it's also possible to totally rewire your sense of the game's goals, and I think that helps us consider what a gameplay experience should look like, and what that says broadly about other forms of interaction and communication.

So let's talk a bit about how I have played

I take great pride in my terrible jpg artifact covered pictures thank you very much.

I have played as a companion species.

The largest cells on the field are many many times larger (ten or twentyfold times at least) than the size of a starting cell. You can gain some measure of protection from these massive cells, picking up nutrients around them that they're too slow to grab themselves and being sheltered to an extent from the cells that are within the cell class that is large enough to split and consume a cell your size, but not so large that a small starting cell isn't worth the greater risk. Splitting is inherently vulnerable, as it halves your mass. Something too small is therefore not worth that heightened vulnerability, most of the time. And a truly vast cell can be easy to accidentally catapult into if you're attempting to grab a smaller cell. So I have acted as a kind of debris-feeding fish hanging around a basking shark, eating scraps.

Sometimes these huge behemoth cells fight. One means of combat in this game is the patches of poisonous cell-like forms that spawn naturally on the field. Consuming such a form causes you to explode into many smaller cells, which are often easily consumed by other cells. Releasing nutrients into these poison forms causes them to grow and eventually split, which means they can be shot, essentially, into other cells. When two behemoths fight, you, the companion species, can pick up the small pieces spit out from one of these great bodies. You can, if you wish, then eject yourself back into the great body that you act as a support mode for. In this way, you play as something beneath the notice of other players, existing only in a support role, privileging survival above all else.

I have played as a clownfish.

I have remained small and hidden within the poison forms, darting out to grab nutrients. If you are below a certain size, you can pass through these forms without harm--they're only dangerous if consumed. You can wait there for a behemoth fight, feeding on nutrient remains, or you can lie perfectly still and wait for another cell to bumble into the poison patch in which you're hiding, straight into your waiting jaws.

Jaws metaphorically of course. Microorganisms don't have jaws.

This isn't an exciting strategy. And actually it can be a disastrous strategy if someone swims into you and bolsters your size so much that you also consume the poison form as well. But it's nevertheless an interesting form of play I think, in that it emphasizes patience and stillness. This can be fascinating as an experience, just to be a silent entity not trying to expand but merely to survive in this weirdly precarious position between too small and too large.

I have played as a mimic.

Color is assigned in the game at random, unless you have a skin. Names, similarly, can be blank. This means that one might be given a green nearly identical to the green of the poison forms. It's possible, therefore, to simply grow to the size of the poison balls, and sit perfectly still, and wait.

And small cells will sometimes not notice that you lack the rough edge of the poison forms, and they'll dive straight into you.

This isn't an active way of playing but there's something deeply hilarious about watching someone dive straight into you. I love working carefully to stay perfectly still--always tricky with the mouse controls--in order to just screw with people.

Of course the problem with this strategy is that sometimes larger cells with more experienced players will simply roll right over you, knowing that they'll be fine. Oh well. That's kind of hilarious too. It turns the whole game into a kind of one on one engagement with each player that approaches you, a game of bluffing, a game within the game.

I have played as a basking shark.

There tends to be enough space on the board that you don't actually have to engage in mortal combat with other players. Will you end up on the leaderboard that way? Probably not. But is it possible? Certainly. Because it's possible to grow by way of scooping up nutrients, or waiting for cells to bumble into you. You can slowly sort of amass your bulk this way, and by merely staying out of the way of anything that could challenge you it's possible to just wander around, large and placid. There's a distinction between this sort of placid survival and direct competition for victory. It's interesting in a game like this to push for a strategy that, essentially, is interested primarily in getting large just so you'll be left alone and can be content to merely be, merely exist slowly moving around the game space.

The lack of a definitive victory condition in the game is really what makes this and other modes of play viable and interesting, I think. I mean, they would be possible regardless, but the minimal interface, limited direct feedback, and above all else the lack of a true end state for the game encourage, to my mind at least, some measure of self direction.

Of course, this basking shark strategy can sometimes result in something like an end state. I've been stuck before in a server that has stopped allowing people in, watching player after player drop out. I'm not sure what happens when there's only one player left. I assume they're plucked from the wretched earth and placed at the left hand of God, or something similar. If you get large enough and can last against the other final great whales and colossal squid battling with each other over the empty board, maybe you too can ascend directly into divinity.

For the rest of us poor mortals, though, maybe swimming around as a basking shark, simply enjoying the experience of being a massive floating entity in solvent seas, is close enough to heaven that it can constitute a worthwhile game goal.

I have played as a gardener.

In the Experimental mode of the game there are red bacterial forms that accompany the poisonous green ones. These forms have some strange unique properties. Obvious immediately is the way they spit out nutrients at a slow but steady rate, making the rim around them an easy source of food. They also, as players will quickly discover to their sorrow, absorb smaller cells completely. If consumed, they have the same properties as the poison forms, exploding a cell's structure.

These forms are in some amount of danger from large cells blundering--or being maneuvered--into them. The green poison forms, however, can provide some protection by virtue of the fact that in the experimental mode they can actually be pushed around the field with nutrient shots.

With this in mind, I've spent time gently herding green forms into a protective zone around these red forms, stopping periodically to replenish my own resources. Whereas other forms of symbiosis in the game happen between players, this form happens only between player and environment, the gardener player existing largely in relation to these game constructs.

This sort of herding isn't exactly what you'd call easy. There's about 15 degrees of variance in either direction from where you're pointing if you're trying to shoot anything. Possibly larger than that even. It's frustrating as hell but I guess it's an element of randomness introduced into the game to make it a bit more possible for people at lower levels to survive. Possibly.

Between this mechanical problem and the issues with players for the most part not giving a shit about your careful gardening and rudely eating you, it's not exactly what you'd call a consistent strategy. And yet I find it to often be incredibly peaceful and rewarding. I only wish I could convince a large enough number of people to play that way in order to turn the whole playing field into a beautifully cultivated bacterial garden.

In the vanilla version of the game, there seems to be no limit to how many green bacterial forms you can cause to spring forth. This means that you can continually grow them, distributing more and more across the field until, at least, in theory, you might clog the entire playing area with poison balls. Of course, in practice it's hard to do this and remain alive... but it's something to work towards. I've managed to build some surprisingly large assemblies of these poisonous objects, and I dream someday of constructing vast labyrinths that take over large portions of the board that larger cells cannot pass through without risking destruction.

I have played as a partisan

Last year got some minor news coverage due to the fact that people from various political parties were using it to campaign for their preferred parties in the Turkish parliamentary election. For my own part, I take particular pleasure in eating people with the name Trump.

There's no way around the fact that there's plenty of 4chan stunted edgelords playing and similar games. In my experience, those folks don't tend to do that well, nor do the political partisans. Supposedly the Turkish elections saw people actually teaming up and building game coalitions, but I haven't exactly seen herds of Hillary supporters sweeping the North American servers. It is interesting, however, that this kind of behavior and play is intrinsically allowed by the system, simply by virtue of its openness. Action becomes the only means of communication--action towards alliances, and action towards opposition. For all that Trump supporters haven't in my experience done all that hot, this emphasis on action could be an Italian Futurist--which is to say, arch-fascist--wet dream. But you could spin it a different way and say that here, when the niceties of milquetoast centrism are wiped away, it's possible to express how you really feel about whatever racist 4channer you're sharing a field with, by way of a well timed poison ball.

There can be a real advantage to teaming up in this game, even outside of the designated "team" mode. (And in fact, the automatic introduction of collision physics between teammates means that it's somewhat harder to team up in the "team" mode from the standpoint of rapidly exchanging mass back and forth.) There's a lot of limitations to communication, though, which makes these teamups difficult. You have to correctly read someone's intent when spitting out material, which can either signal an alliance or represent a lure. And yet that, aside from people using names like "team press w," is pretty much the only way to "talk" in the game. 

Even within these teamups you can take a number of strategies. You can act as a support, living vicariously, not trying to get on the leaderboard but propelling another player to those lofty heights. This is interesting to me because it seems like if we were inherently deeply competitive animals driven by personal victory, it feels like there would not be this sort of behavior. And yet I've observed much of this sort of lopsided collaboration, which can be very interesting to watch. People can unify and work together with very limited communication tools, with people sacrificing their own chance at a play experience characterized by singular dominance. Instead we have this tendency towards alliance and collaboration. 

It's probably almost impossible to actually communicate a truly complex intent in the game, an intent like that of the Gardener play archetype(s), so I have to rely on this sort of outside, supplementary communication to convey the ideas of the archetype. Although, hey, if I started organizing the green bacterial forms into a crudely drawn dong, perhaps I could get other people to catch on. Dick jokes: the universal visual language?? Blog about THAT, Neil Cohn!

But can be translated quite rapidly into metaphor once one is familiar with how the game is played, which is what made the whole Turkish election event possible. It's pretty simple to translate game mechanics to posters showing one "party" honing in on a prize while another looms up far larger behind, ready to gobble up the whole thing. I can't say I really get behind the triumphant "yeah fandoms are so gr8 for political consciousness!!" tone of this old article, but I'm still fascinated by the fact that people are so good at rapidly latching onto metaphors and typologies from the art they're interacting with and transforming them into political statements. It strongly suggests, if nothing else, that it really takes basically no special training to be a political cartoonist. (And in turn that suggests maybe a useful difference between political cartoonists and activist artists: activist artists, in my experience, tend to be quite open about the fact that anyone could do what they do, whereas political cartoonists for some reason all think that they're geniuses and their genius would be recognized by all if only the damn millennials would stop instagramming their food.)

As much as I've on occasion indulged in partisanship within, and as much as I've taken note of the way people interact and overcome the barrier of limited language in order to communicate and collaborate, I don't want to draw out any particular political metaphor out of this. I don't think such a simple structure of play can be converted so easily to broad sweeping claims about humanity. These claims tend to be reductive, and in line with the observer's expectations. I mean, it'd be pretty disingenuous to talk about the team aspect of the game without talking about the fact that sometimes you can have real knuckleheads on your side... or end up with someone who accepts aid but in return simply hogs resources. Spin it this way and that, the system is so simple it'll accept practically any reading.

Instead I want to merely suggest that the idea of a definitive and intrinsice way of responding to simple structures is a lofty ideal that doesn't really hold water. There's so much variance in behavior possible even within this highly simplified framework that while it's important to be aware of the kind of ideological components of games I think it's also important to consider the place of the player--i.e. reader--in making meaning. I think it says so much about our imaginative capacity that such a simplified framework can be developed into so many different play styles.

I have played so much of because I relish the way the game's openness allows me to carry out such explorations.

And I have played so damn much that honestly if I didn't try to write an article about it at this point I'd feel like a real goof off.

Storming the Ivory Tower is produced because of the generosity of my patrons. You, too, can become one of these generous patrons by subscribing to my Patreon. For $1 you can view the draft version of this article; for $3 you can hear my podcast version of the article, containing content that didn't make it into the final piece. If for some reason you feel compelled to see the Krita file used to generate the wonderful illustration for tonight's article, you can download the original file for $2. And don't forget that for $5 you can read my most recent article collection on My Little Pony, Neighquiem for a Dream, and will be supporting my next collection, A Bodiless and Timeless Persona: Essays on Homestuck and Theme
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