I hadn’t anticipated becoming Chief Reporter for the Global News Network after signing up to play the Watch The Skies Megagame last week. Maybe I’d be the Chief Scientist for France, or perhaps the Chinese Premier, helping directing essential climate change research with the world’s leading scientists, or high-stakes diplomacy with India and America.
Instead, I was dashing around a hall frantically writing quotes into Google Docs on my iPhone before a deadline that came every 40 minutes. It was like that first episode of Battlestar Galactica, but with an even shakier camera.
Excuse me, Foreign Minister, I’m Adrian Hon from GNN Press – can I get a comment on the outbreak in Belize? I’m sure our readers would like to know what kind of assistance the Chinese government will be providing. Yes, I’m aware this isn’t the kind of information you give out to anyone, but between you and me, I’ve got 11 million in commitments from three different countries. If you give me a hint… well, you could have a head-start in the next UN negotiations.
If you put a Model United Nations conference into a blender with War of the Worlds, you’d get Watch The Skies, a six hour megagame in which 40 people take control of eight nations, one news organisation, and one mysterious alien race. In our ‘Lite’ version of the game, each nation had four players: the Head of State, Chief of Defence, Chief Scientist, and Foreign Minister, each with their own unique abilities and responsibilities.
While there’s a map with tanks and fighter jets, and there’s money and counters and cards, Watch The Skies really is more like Model UN than Risk: to achieve your objectives, you need effective diplomacy, not battle tactics and dice rolls.
There are plenty of other megagames. One is set in feudal Japan; another sees you battling a zombie outbreak. There’s even The World Turned Upside Down, about the American Revolution. There are genuine differences between megagames, but they all have the same delicate balance of roleplay, diplomacy, and utter panic.
Panic, because there’s literally no way for any individual player or even team to fully comprehend what’s reallygoing on in the game. Sure, you’re in secret talks with the aliens and you’re plotting with Brazil and the UK to vote down France’s bid to chair the next scientific conference – but there’s no way you could know that America and China are about to move their fleets across the Pacific to capture a downed alien ship in Australia, or that Brazil is badmouthing you to all and sundry in the hopes of toppling your government.
Not unless you read the fearless, globe-trotting in-game news service, GNN, of course.
Longform, my favourite journalism podcast, gets into videogames with Tom Bissell. Along with his magazine and non-fiction writing, there’s some honest insights into the business and reality of writing for triple-A videogames.
I’m planning a longish blog post about playing as the Press team in the Watch The Skiesmegagame – if you have any questions, hit me up!
The second case in Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective was a lot easier, taking under an hour to fully solve. The game’s mechanics continue to fascinate me and I can see all sorts of ways to extend them with apps…
Good piece on why Wing Commander II sold so well from a commercial, tech, and storytelling perspective. Thankfully, the author doesn’t get bogged down in the tiresome ludology vs. narrative wars.
Like the original game, Life is Strange: Before the Storm has baffling lapses in writing quality and yet remains an beautifully touching and earnest story. What Remains of Edith Finch is great, but there aren’t that many mostly-realistic games like LIS these days.
Is there any instrument that sounds more unpleasant in the hands of a beginner than the violin? Consider the piano. No matter where you hit the keys, you‘re guaranteed to be in tune, whereas if you’re off by just a millimetre on the violin, everyone will know. The guitar has frets that help delineate finger positions, while violins have nothing but a long, terrifying, featureless expanse. The cello? The strings are longer and the pitch is lower, so you have more room for error.
If it’s not your finger positioning, then it’s your bowing. And if it’s not your bowing, it’s too much — or too little — rosin. And so on.
Unless you’re unfortunate enough to have a child learning it, it‘s rare indeed to encounter the torturous sounds of a poorly-played violin. It’s for that reason alone, I think, that parents encourage their children to take up lessons. If they knew they‘d be exposed to hundreds of hours of frustrated, repetitive scratchings before hearing a hint of the heavenly tones that they hear on the radio or Spotify, they’d have bought a piano or guitar instead.
Yes, I learned the violin. How could you tell?
I do my best work when I solve my own problems. When I was at school, I spent a year in a ‘Young Enterprise’ scheme creating CD-ROM textbooks for biology, chemistry and physics exams because I found revising unbelievably boring (the company, of which I was Managing Director, instantly began in-fighting the moment a software publisher offered to buy the CDs).
More recently, Zombies, Run! — a fitness game for smartphones that makes running fun — was partly borne out of the months of pain and tedium that accompanied my learning how to run at university.
Learning the violin? That’s a special kind of pain, and it requires a special kind of solution. But it’d be worth it, because if you can make it through hundreds and thousands of hours of hard graft, you just might have a few moments of pure grace.
As with a lot of funny-but-mildly-offensive memes, High Expectations Asian Father has a kernel of truth to it. I saw a variation: “You can learn whatever musical instrument you want: Violin or Piano.”
I learned both.
I don’t know where these stereotypes come from, but the best origin story I’ve heard says that immigrants have always suffered from prejudice, and the Asian response was to pursue professions in which advancement depended purely on objective criteria. Becoming a journalist or an artist requires connections and is subject to people’s opinions, whereas becoming a doctor can be accomplished through aceing exams, whose results no-one can dispute.
The violin and piano, of course, both require a high degree of technical mastery, and they both are dominated by classical music — that is, music one can objectively decide whether it’s being played ‘properly’ or not, as opposed to all this modern pop or rap music, which changes so quickly it’s hard to trust your own opinions.
I was never a good violinist. After more than eight years of practice, I attained Grade 8 more out of sheer grit rather than natural aptitude; I may have produced a tolerable sound, but never one that was good.
Except for when I was playing in an orchestra. You might think that the only thing worse than hearing a beginner violinist is hearing twenty beginners play, but in truth, differences in pitch (“intonation,” my teacher would cry, “intonation!”) are evened out the more players you have. The tempo would still be all over the place, but even amateur orchestras could sound mostly OK with a bit of practice.
It was also much more fun to play in an orchestra. Unlike the terrifying, solitary experience of playing alone, you could lean on your desk-mate and the people in front of you (and, as a last resort, look at the conductor) to know when you were supposed to ‘come in’ after several bars of silence. It was really quite exciting, when you weren’t bored from repeating the same section a dozen times.
At most school and youth orchestras, you begin at the bottom of the second violins, then gradually advance up to the first desk position, and then graduate into the first violins; the second violins get all the dull harmonies that don’t sound like anything at all, whereas the first violins get the heroic melodies.
In my orchestra, no matter how terrible they sounded, violinists were typically promoted into the first violins in their last year, as a reward for their long service. As it happened, I was born early in the school year, meaning the conductors didn’t realise I was in my last year until too late, so I never played in the first violins. Instead, I spent a whole year as the leader of the second violins.
I don’t know that anyone enjoys being leader of the second violins, especially in a youth orchestra. You get the occasional heroic solo, but for the most part you’re looking after your younger charges — making sure they have their music ready, showing them when we’re supposed to come in with our harmony by exaggeratedly lifting your violin a couple of bars early, that sort of thing. It’s a responsibility without much reward, but someone’s got to do it, otherwise the orchestra stops working. For me, it was an instructive experience.
I also learned the piano for several years, but that was much more fun.
Perhaps learning the violin is not meant to be fun. Lots of things in life are not fun, but they are character building.
But this is absurd! It’s possible to take a skill that require thousands of hours of practice to fully master, and make it fun. It might take a lot of effort and time and entire new fields of technology like chess computers or virtual reality, but it is possible.
No-one watches Game of Thrones and thinks, “this show describes my life perfectly.” It may contain plenty of themes and imagery that ring true today, about lust for power and the pitiless brutality of war — it may be fantastic storytelling — but unlike drama set in the ‘real’ world of doctors and policewomen and unemployed people, it’s a harder jump to put yourself in the place of characters who shoe horses or chop people’s heads off for a living.
As a science fiction drama set at an indeterminate point in the future, Westworld is slightly more ‘real’ than Game of Thrones, but the premise is arguably more ridiculous — a theme park set in the Old West, filled with robots that guests pay to have sex with and kill. We all know how that story ends, don’t we?
But by the end of the second episode, Westworld felt more relevant to my life than almost anything else I’ve watched recently. Why?
Because it’s one of the first shows to take videogames seriously. Yes, it’s also about humanity’s relationship and responsibility towards its creations — but when you see characters talking about finding hidden levels, and employees frustrated about designing new quests with exquisitely-modelled robot actors, you don’t need a PhD to understand what they’re talking about.
To a certain set of people, videogames still mean Super Mario and Space Invaders, Call of Duty and Candy Crush. So when these people depict videogames in fiction, they get flattened out into mindless gore-laden cariactures or hyper-addictive puzzle games. There isn’t much interesting to say about those games, other than in a Black Mirror-ish “the future is terrible, and so are we” way.
But there are other games out there, role-playing games where you can explore enormous worlds for hundreds of hours, becoming a knight or a criminal or, yes, a cowboy, helping or hindering hundreds of non-player characters (NPCs) in countless quests. They aren’t ‘better’ than Tetris, but they’re very different.
And it’s these role-playing games that Westworld is so familiar with and evidently very skeptical of, even as they crib them for material. There’s one scene in the second episode where a man is introducing his friend to the world, and they’re flagged down by a town inhabitant who robotically recites his lines about a hidden treasure. The man drags his friend away, performing the equivalent of hammering “X” on a controller to skip through a story cutscene, impatient to get to the good bits — and that’s not even the most obvious example of their dislike for canned gaming dialogue.
Canned dialogue or not, it’s what visitors pay $40,000 per night for. “We sell complete immersion in 100 interconnected narratives. A Relentless! Fucking! Experience!” shouts one game designer, a little defensively. Westworld is not merely about shooting people or having sex or even about the incredible environment — it’s not about mindless thrills, it’s about placing visitors into the heart of their own, tailor-made adventure where they can become the (anti)hero. It’s about the story.
Oh, what sweet words to my ears.
Once upon a time, my actual job was Alternate Reality Game Designer. For three years, I was lead designer of a fictional world that blended straight into our own world. Tens of thousands of paying players would receive emails to their personal accounts, phone calls on their mobile, and letters in the mail. They’d discover adverts laden with clues in the newspaper, and when they’d meet with other players, one might escape onto a literal black helicopter when uncovered as an in-game mole.
It was a thrilling and incredibly stressful experience to create a world that was always ‘on’, but that’s what we were selling; unlike practically every other ARG to date, we weren’t advertising movies or cars or jeans. We were selling a standalone experience, one that aspired to provide complete immersion in interconnected narratives but — of course — wasn’t quite as immersive as Westworld.
I don’t pretend that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have ARGs foremost in their minds when writing Westworld. They were probably more interested in epic role-playing games and massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto or The Witcher 3. But I like to think that ARGs are closer in reality to what they’ve created. It’s only in ARGs that you physically step into a fictional world for days on end; it’s only ARGs that have attempted to blend real world storytelling and gameplay. So yes, I feel a frisson of delight as I watch the first show that reflects my job. I can imagine the millions of role-playing gamers gradually ageing into their 30s and 40s — a prime HBO subscriber demographic — feel just the same way.
It’s far too early to tell how much Westworld can tell us about our relationship with videogames. Stray too far from how a ‘real’ Westworld might work and the story loses its power to tell us about our own world. Even by the end of the second episode, you’re left wondering how, precisely, the theme park prevents players from accidentally stabbing each other, or from constantly breaking character and irritating other players keen to immerse themselves in the fiction.
But adhering too closely to gaming verisimilitude can produce an overly cautious and mechanical story. Even as a gaming and technology enthusiast, I have little interest in Westworld exploring the minutiae of experience points and AR field of vision.
Judging by its first two hours, I remain hopeful that Westworld will continue to address videogames. It’s a rich, untapped narrative vein to mine: what people will do to win, the seductive attraction of repetitive actions that make us feel like we’ve accomplished something, our desire for a world that we can master and yet can still surprise us.
In the mean time, I have too many silly ideas for Westworld writing projects. Here are just a few:
Everyone in Britain is playing a game called Austerity. Some are playing the game with enthusiasm and conviction. Some are playing with calculation and cunning. And others believe they are not playing, when in fact they cannot escape the game.
Austerity is not a console game with expensive graphics, nor is it an addictive casual game for smartphones. It is a LARP: a Live Action Role-Playing game. Like other LARPs, this game consumes your environment and your life. Unlike other LARPs, Austerity does not take place on a disused Swedish naval destroyer and end after a weekend. You will live and breathe Austerity for as long as everyone continues to believe in it, which means it may have no end.
It has a beginning, though: the Second World War.
Nostalgia is an intoxicating brew. We venerate WW2, the last time Britain was Great, the last time the Kingdom felt truly United, the last time we had a national victory that wasn’t on the field of play. It’s natural to look back fondly on such times, acknowledging the horrors and respecting the sacrifice.
Wait, no. Not respecting the sacrifice – fetishising it.
This is Keep Calm and Carry On. This is Dig for Victory, ration books, Downton Abbey (sort of) and Doctor Who’s innumerable wartime stories.
Dig for Victory and ration books are real, of course. They were part of the civilian mission to harness the entire capacity of a country in the pursuit of victory in a total war. Likewise, war bonds and volunteering and sewing clothes for the men. Money was tight but it was necessary to be thrifty. Virtuous, even. And who can say that the war was not won by such virtuous sacrifice?
Austerity has those sentiments at its heart: sacrifice is necessary for victory against an existential threat such as the Nazis.
Today’s existential threats are the European Union, immigrants, a slightly high debt-to-GDP ratio, and a lack of respect from other countries. To prevail against such enemies, hard choices must be made. We cannot afford to waste money on shirkers, or waste money on fripperies such as arts and culture. We must cut taxes on entrepreneurs and reward hard-working families, because people who are not in families, and people who do not work hard, do not deserve anything.
Now, it may be that these hard choices often end up benefitting those who already have lots of money; but this is where the game becomes important as a justification and a distraction. If players are encouraged to emulate the heroes of WW2, to Keep Calm and Carry On, then we will be prepared to sacrifice anything to save the nation from existential threats: to cut social security, to close those theatres and museums.
Sometimes players get upset when they perceive that other players are breaking the immersion, as can happen in other LARPs. For example, we didn’t have all these foreigners back in WW2, so it’s wrong to have them here now. We didn’t have wind power and solar power either, so that must also be wrong.
But the truth is, we are all breaking the rules in Austerity. If we were really committing to the LARP, then we would be investing hours a day into community gardens and volunteer work. We would be living and fighting and dying, cheek by jowl, on the front lines, the baker next to the banker, the lawyer next to the labourer.
Real believers in Austerity would reinstate the two thousand British Restaurants, communal kitchens that would sell you a healthy meal for the equivalent of £1 in today’s money. They would serve a million meals a day to those who couldn’t afford any better, and they would make the country fit and strong.
Like other LARPs, Austerity is a sham. And like other LARPs, a lot of players don’t want to take on the hard roles – they just want to do the easy fun stuff; the sewing and dressing up and saving pennies while forcing other players to part with pounds. That is why the special mission in Austerity, “The Big Society”, was such a failure.
The real danger of the Austerity LARP, though, is that it’s not actually real. We don’t live in 1945 any more; we live in 2015. We do not face an existential threat to the nation (other than perhaps climate change). We are not obliged to spend £45 billion, or 2.2% of GDP, on a non-productive military. We do, however, have the money to spend more on the institutions that made this country great: social security, NHS, the universities, the schools.
We need to snap the fuck out this playtime and get real.