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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.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Chorby Prefers Not To: Blaseball, Bartleby, and a Fandom's Malicious Compliance

Chorby Short is an adorable frog girl who is also sometimes a witch. Or perhaps, she's just some data in a game taking the internet by storm called Blaseball. Or perhaps, she's a new example of an idea from an 1853 Herman Melville story. Or perhaps, she's all this and more? 

"I prefer not to," he replied in a flute-like tone. It seemed to me that while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made; fully comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusions; but, at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did.

Chorby Short, a frog that can turn into a witch (or a witch that can turn into a frog), sits contentedly on home, swinging her bat at every single ball. They have all been fouls so far. Chorby Short has swung at 100 of them in a row. The game has completely locked up. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

Were you there for Update Culture, around the early part of Homestuck Act 6? I forgot how frenzied it felt. Each new drop in the story prompted a wild flood of speculation. Updates that dropped during conventions would see cosplayers developing new costumes in their hotel rooms. There's something both celebratory and intimidating about that kind of intensely productive culture. 

It makes some sense that a game like Blaseball, a surreal web based simulator of fast paced baseball games warped by arcane rules, edicts, and weather patterns, would develop a similar culture. The game is constantly updating, both in the form of big story beats that reshape the game mechanics, and in the constant games that run each and every every hour while a blaseball season is happening. I mean, I say "big story beats" but individual games can have their own seismic, fandom-shaking events: players getting abruptly incinerated, or bugs in the simulation causing all players on a team to get abruptly renamed.

And it's impossible to know when any such events are coming, because the whole game is randomly generated. The devs simply write the code, and let it run. It's important to understand that there's no art on the website of Chorby Short as a magical frog girl. There's just a name and a series of stats, and when she appears in the game there are notices:

...and so on.

This combines with a culture where there tends to be broad consensus on characterization but people also take an "everything is canon" approach and events are up to individual viewers (and writers and fan artists) to imagine. The result is Update Culture, the frenzied spread of information and speculation and fan responses after something shifts unexpectedly in an always changing serial narrative.

It's tempting to view Update Culture purely through a lens of positive participation, that what makes the cultural phenomenon of Blaseball good is the latitude it gives gives to participants for self expression. But I don't think just celebrating this as fan passion and positivity quite captures the spirit of an update frenzy. No, part of the fun comes from antagonism.

An update is almost always destructive in some way, if only to the status quo. Particularly in a sport where the future of a team can hinge on just a handful of games, and competition between fans can be fierce, even positive changes for one group of fans can be devastating for another. Even more antagonistically, these changes often come not because some writer is scripting the scenario, as in other forms of participatory performance art, but simply because that's how the numbers shook out. Baseball, an already profoundly statistics-based sport from what I understand, when accelerated to one whole year of games per week with numerous strange additional stat-manipulating mechanics, and paired with mechanics where players can accumulate money based on their teams' and favorite players' standings, becomes a frantic experiment in both inciting low probability freakout events, and making those events incredibly weighty for the playerbase.

Blaseball plays on this antagonism between game and fans, and between fans and other fans, with an absurdist horror aesthetic. Creators The Game Band (in)famously explained, after a string of fan favorite characters got sent to hell by a revenant player, that "Blaseball is a horror game, telling a story about building community amidst malevolent forces beyond your control." The first era of Blaseball was dubbed "The Discipline Era" after players voted to open and actually read the rulebook that dictated the otherwise opaque game. Doing so unleashed everything from demonic Rogue Umpires to bizarre weather (plagues of crows, eclipses, and rains of blood) to a belligerent peanut god issuing nonsensical and arbitrary commands. Individual events are still pretty much random, but this bit of narrative framing kayfabe actually encourages the players to think of Blaseball as not just a competition between teams and their fans, but between the fandom as a whole and the game itself.

The game is not without mercy, of course. The money players earn from betting on games and championing players gets fed back into the big end-season Election period, where they can bid on (randomly selected...) boons. Many of these are simply ways of increasing the power of players (flavored as "organ replacement" for example). Some are deliberately designed to increase antagonism, like boons that let one team's fans steal another team's star player. Some take advantage of strange weather patterns, so that if a ball field gets flooded out and the players washed away, a player with flippers will be able to swim through the flood to home and get a run.

And then there's abilities that try to mitigate the cruel randomness of the game. Abilities for example that prevent players from being incinerated by rogue umpires, or instead allow players to swallow the fire and turn it into fuel for a victory. Those are flashy abilities designed to counteract the special hazards of Blaseball, but what about the cruelty of the original sport? Doesn't it kind of suck to have your player, a really nice player all things considered, just get struck out without the pitcher really giving them a fair chance? Yeah!

Enter "0 No". This ability means that if the affected batter hasn't received a single "ball" (where the pitcher throws a baseball outside the hitting zone, sort of the pitcher equivalent of a foul ball, yes the name's confusing look sports are silly alright) they simply can't be struck out. They can hit as many fouls, miss the baseball as many times as they want, and by god they will not be marked out until the pitcher gives them one ball.

Enter Chorby Short. Chorby is not a good blaseball hitter. She is very cute and everyone loves her but she cannot hit a ball to save her life. But by god she swings. She swings practically every time! The balls go careening off sideways or backwards but Chorby just stands there smiling, swinging again... and again... and again...

Enter her opponent. Chorby's team, the Yellowstone Magic, happened to draw a game against Canada's own Moist Talkers (eugh). The pitcher in rotation was infamous in their own way: PolkaDot Patterson, an aggressive pitcher that seldom shows batters the mercy of a ball.

Again and again PolkaDot Patterson hurled baseballs at the frog and/or witch at bat. Again and again the baseballs zoomed out into the foul zone.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

There's a Herman Melville short story that I like quite a bit, Bartleby the Scrivener. It's kind of weird to describe the story or lay out its plot because, like Homestuck or an Oscar Wilde play, it's not driven so much by events but by a bunch of oddball characters interacting together. In fact, the lack of things happening is kind of the point of the story. Its hero, after all, famously could and maybe even should do his job, but when asked simply states that he "would prefer not to."

Bartleby is a scrivener or law-copyist, a dude whose job it is to make copies of legal documents in a legal office. The narrator of the story, his boss, is a bit of a soft touch, a bit of a pushover, and has a stable of people working for him who are all eccentrics in their own way. Bartleby though goes above and beyond, one day simply deciding that he "would prefer not to" examine the legal document copies with his peers. Then, he decides that he "would prefer not to" do a whole host of other things, from running errands to explaining anything about himself or his history.

The story is largely an absurdist account of the narrator's complete perplexity in the face of this all-encompassing preference simply not to. There's a fun and fascinating psychology to this, as the narrator also is stuck in a pattern where he feels compelled to defend Bartleby but also to needle him, describing himself as feeling a burning desire for Bartleby's insubordination, asking for meaningless tasks to be fulfilled just so he can hear Bartleby's preference not to. Like I said, it's kind of hard to describe, cause so much of the fascination and humor comes not in the events themselves but the color the telling gives them:

Somehow, of late I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word "prefer" upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions. And I trembled to think that my contact with the scrivener had already and seriously affected me in a mental way. And what further and deeper aberration might it not yet produce? This apprehension had not been without efficacy in determining me to summary means.

As Nippers, looking very sour and sulky, was departing, Turkey blandly and deferentially approached.

"With submission, sir," said he, "yesterday I was thinking about Bartleby here, and I think that if he would but prefer to take a quart of good ale every day, it would do much towards mending him, and enabling him to assist in examining his papers."

"So you have got the word too," said I, slightly excited.

"With submission, what word, sir," asked Turkey, respectfully crowding himself into the contracted space behind the screen, and by so doing, making me jostle the scrivener. "What word, sir?"

"I would prefer to be left alone here," said Bartleby, as if offended at being mobbed in his privacy.

"That's the word, Turkey," said I—"that's it."

"Oh, prefer? oh yes—queer word. I never use it myself. But, sir, as I was saying, if he would but prefer—"

"Turkey," interrupted I, "you will please withdraw."

"Oh certainly, sir, if you prefer that I should."

Eventually, faced with Bartleby simply taking up residence in the office, the narrator winds up moving his whole business to another building.

This is my first real season of Blaseball, my first time experiencing the narrative live. I assumed I'd take it slow, that my disconnection from the fandom as a whole and its 12 seasons of established fanon lore meant I was kinda locked out of doing too much interpretation of my own. Then Chorby stepped up to bat and I found myself getting more and more caught up in the drama of her emergent narrative. I knew enough to know the context for the game. I knew that against the odds the fans had come together to defeat a hated god... and that in its place they summoned "new management", an ominously cheerful silver roman coin that proclaimed "peace and prosperity". I knew that the old weather hadn't actually cleared, that players were still getting incinerated and, we soon discovered, shelled by the remnant power of the defeated god.

And here was this little frog-witch, standing at bat and simply hitting foul, after foul, after foul. How many of the fouls would have been balls if not for Chorby leaping heroically to smack them into the dirt of the diamond? We'll never know--the feed gives no clues. I like to think that quite a few could've ended the lockout, though, and Chorby simply refused.

Chorby, it dawned on me, was looking at each and every baseball coming towards her, considering "should I just let this one go past me, and break this stalemate? Should I accept that I'm not a good enough hitter to best PolkaDot Patterson? Should I let this game being played for someone else's benefit just go ahead like it's supposed to?"

"I would prefer not to."

Chorby was, cheerfully, making the Bartleby decision, and then hitting another foul ball. Again. And again.

This piece of statistical and emergent rules nonsense electrified me because it represented a theme that I knew was elsewhere in the game. Benjamin notes that the good things in life, the spiritual things, are present even in a struggle for material gains by the oppressed classes: humor, solidarity, defiance. Characters like Bartleby and Chorby appeal to me because they represent a disruption, a suggestion that things can be different than they are if we simply... well, not "stop playing by the rules", exactly. After all, nothing here was against the rules, it emerged from the rules themselves, and the force of Chorby's and PolkaDot's natures colliding together. No, this was malicious compliance, carrying out orders to the letter of the law, behaving like a silly little automaton, doing exactly what the boss says even when doing so would obviously result in disaster.

This kind of thing doesn't necessarily work out for the maliciously compliant. Sorry for the spoilers for a century-and-a-half-old story but Bartleby ultimately dies in poverty. The Magic did not win the game in which Chorby carried out her heroic string of foul balls. And there's even more dramatic failures in Blaseball's history:

A few seasons back the LA Unlimited Tacos opted to carry out what they called the "Snackrifice". Blaseball has an "Idols" board where the most fan-idolized players get displayed, and some of the slots had been marked for consumption by an angry peanut god. Faced with a form of stardom that would consume its stars for the entertainment of the fans, the Tacos decided that they would prefer not to be part of this cruel blood sport. They convinced the fans to idolize every pitcher on the team. Inevitably, they were punished and suddenly, bewilderingly, an entire blaseball team was left with no pitchers.

In a perfect reflection of labor history, management responded by "gifting" the Tacos with a pitching machine, scab automation that could force the rest of the striking workers back onto the pitch. In retrospect, this was a perverse alternate figuration of incidents we watch play out last year. In the wake of mass uprisings in the US over police violence, the NBA went on strike, demanding action. In the face of an unprecedented crisis of "no basketball" and "people getting Ideas", none other than former president Barack Obama stepped in to convince superstar players to break the strike. In return for throwing away all their leverage, the striking players got--a working committee? Haha, yeah, sure. That's politics baby!

Despite this history of defeat, though, these stories are still, to me, electrifying. Even in the face of the fact that this was all fanon, just an interpretation on my part of a series of statistical quirks, it still feels inspiring. And I'm not the only person getting messages like this from Blaseball. The Houston Spies most notably have taken the energy of the fandom and directed it towards radical action, with a group of them running seminars on how to unionize your workplace. The kayfabe of the game and our active engagement in interpreting its stories might just let the fandom fight the devs and each other in the context of the sport, while developing a consciousness of resistance and solidarity applicable to the coming struggles in the real world.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

The system as it stands has to resolve the situation somehow, and it probably can, through one trick or another... by making one or the other player simply blink, as PolkaDot Paterson eventually did in their contest with Chorby. Or through other means, quietly rewriting the rules on the backend as when a bug caused a game to enter "Crowvertime" where birds prevented outs from getting registered and the devs had to quietly fix things backstage. Maybe the unstoppable force and the immovable object meet, and simply... phase through one another.

But the system gets exposed in that moment in its fallibility, in its inability to account for each and every possibility, all our wide latitude to engage in malicious compliance. It get exposed as a rigged game that we might not actually want to play at all, that we might "prefer" to overthrow.

Chorby Short was, after all, simply playing by the rules of the game of Blaseball. If they turned out to be absurd, broken rules, well, that was hardly Chorby's fault! Facing down gods and monsters and a new managerial regime, she smiled and said, "I would prefer not to."

Chorby Short
Chorby Small
Chorby Never Hit A Ball
--traditional Yellowstone Magic chant

This Has Been

Chorby Prefers Not To

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