Guilt & Morality

In the last round of posts, Amy Stewart talked about the game Lisa: The Painful RPG, the premise of which is that players are forced to make disagreeable choices throughout and that “being selfish and heartless is the only way to survive”. I have never played the game, but it seems to be that many of the choices that will lead a player to easier success are also choices that in the “real” world would be considered morally reprehensible. My question is, is there some point where the morality or lack thereof of player actions completely falls to the wayside, trumped by a desire to win? After all, a game is just a game, and the NPCs are just pixels, right? Amy talked about a point in the game where the player is confronted by someone he cares about who rebukes him for his choices and cites them as her reason for leaving. It seems like the purpose of this is to make the player feel guilty about what he has done in the game, but for that to work the player has to care about the character without regard to the how well he or she has done in the game. We know that people can fairly easily become attached to things that they have a relation to or ownership of, but how far does that apply when the thing is entirely digital and it stands in the way of finally winning a game?

There are also, of course, a lot of games where killing enemies is one of the major components of the gameplay. If you actually think about what it is you’re doing, there’s some small modicum of guilt, but usually that’s soon forgotten because again, your enemies aren’t real to begin with and they’re getting in the way of your winning. This post isn’t really concerned with the longstanding question about violence in video games, but rather how easy it is or isn’t for people to set aside feelings of guilt when convenient. It’s an interesting sort of psychological element to add to a game, especially since it would seem that a more foolproof way to add in hard decisions would be to provide choices that lead to unfavorable changes in different areas of a player’s success. That way, no matter how quickly the player sets aside his reluctance towards moral ambiguity in the game, the decisions are still difficult — but then that would be an entirely different game.


Some thoughts about a show

The other night I attended the opening performance of CMU’s production of Cloud Tectonics, a play written by José Rivera. I left with no idea as to whether it was good or bad, insightful or trite, poetic and beautiful or long and dull. The audience laughed at several lines, so I think it was probably funny at times, but I had no internalized opinions about the play because I have seen and read it so many times that I no longer have any reaction to the plot, the themes, the meaning.


José Rivera’s Cloud Tectonics at CMU, directed by Kevin Karol.

The reason for this is because I was the sound designer for the piece, and for the past several weeks the entire design team has watched the play a lot, and examined and tweaked just about every moment. So for one thing, the actions of the play end up becoming incredibly familiar, and for another, each department is so focused on their particular aspect that it’s hard to see the whole piece. This kind of thing happens no matter what media you’re dealing with; repeated extensive interaction with the same thing makes it very easy to lose sight of the overall. Even repeating a single word over and over makes it lose its meaning. In games, that’s what playtesters are for, observing and judging the product in a way that its creators can no longer experience. Theater works a little differently, especially in smaller productions such as this one, and an abundance of new eyes isn’t always available.

Watching the play as an audience member was actually pretty agonizing for me. Even though it was the first time I really had a chance to step back and watch the play as a whole, I couldn’t stop myself from noticing each sound, and spending a large majority of the time picking out and scrutinizing every mistake, whether they were large or small (there were both) and whether they were my fault or not (there were both). Sometimes I didn’t know if they were things that I noticed because I had been working with them for so long, or if they were obvious to everyone else, but they all seemed pretty obtrusive to me. I can’t really tell if this is because I’ve been so close to it for so long that I don’t have any way to view the work objectively, but while this is a possibility, it seems like the things that I take issue with aren’t very liable to just go away. I’ve had a few people tell me that the show sounded good, or they’ve brought up moments that they liked, although I haven’t yet been convinced that it might not be as bad as I think. But I’m definitely not wrong when I say that I could have used several more days of work. And of course that an area that gets muddy, too — after those few more days, you could probably have a few more for tweaks, and maybe a few more after that… Unless you run into a hard deadline it’s really difficult to say when “good enough” is, or for that matter if “good enough” is actually good enough.

But in any case, here’s my advice for future me/anyone working in a similar situation:
No matter how small your time footprint is, make sure that the first time you sit back and observe your creation without changing anything is not also the first performance/presentation/whatever. In the end this production only had one complete run of the show, beginning to end, with all elements incorporated before opening, and I suspect that was some of the reason why opening was less than ideal. Maybe an additional run would have allowed me to catch an extra mistake or two, but there’s no saying that I wouldn’t have added and consequently missed another, and ultimately, more run throughs with tweaks as you go are not a substitute for hands-free, as-objective-as-possible observation.

It sounds incredibly simple, in fact stupidly simple, but whether you have playtesters or you’re relying on your own ability to observe objectively, if you don’t make the time for a final review, you may end up regretting it.

On Starting

For me starting is the hardest part; I pretty frequently have an awful time trying to put pen to paper. I hate trying to do things without having an idea as to what is going to be done, even though I know that often enough it’s the doing that leads you to the what. There’s an activity called the Marshmallow Challenge, where groups of people are given sticks of uncooked spaghetti, some tape, some string, and a single marshmallow. Each group’s goal is to raise the marshmallow as far off the ground as possible, using only the given materials and a limited amount of time. People have done experiments with this activity, testing it out on different types of people, and it turns out that kindergarteners are frequently more successful than adults are. The reason for this is that the adults tend to get bogged down trying to plan the best strategy, and by the time they reach a conclusion a lot of time has already passed and if this first strategy doesn’t work, there’s no time try another. On the other hand, the kindergarteners were more likely to just start trying something, and if it didn’t work there was still time to try something else.

A lot of times I take issue with examples/experiments such as this because there’s no knowing if what works for one specific situation will work in another, even if the lesson seems obvious. In this case, the example describes a process that is both fairly simple and specific. The results of the Marshmallow Challenge could easily have been different if there was more or less time allotted, or if the task was something on a larger scale. In a complicated project there absolutely has to be planning done beforehand, or else things don’t work together nor do they get done on time. There’s a very good reason why managers and producers have the jobs that they do.

All that being said there are most definitely some very good reasons for just trying things out. One of my favorite projects that I’ve done was a project called “Unfolding Narrative,” for a Photoshop class. The idea was to create something that would be physically unfolded in order to tell a story. This was one of the few projects where I actually started early, just by brainstorming and cutting out random shapes to see how they worked in three dimensions. The thing is, my final idea was not at all related to my original prototypes and I no longer have any clue as to where the idea even came from. The final piece is a regular pyramid, each corner of which is hinged and reveals new panels.

Essentially there are two different pyramid “states” and eight different faces, each of which has a slightly different scene.

I cannot for the life of me remember why, but for some reason I ended up thinking about pyramids. I was trying to figure out if a regular pyramid can be broken up into several smaller regular pyramids, but I wasn’t able to really visualize it well enough in three dimensions. The answer, for the record, is no — if each corner of a regular pyramid is cut in such a way that it creates smaller regular pyramids with a side length equal to one-third of the original, the remaining space in the middle is an octahedron. At first I built a couple of small paper pyramids to determine this, and later verified it in Rhino. In any case, it was this single question which had bugged me a couple of days that ultimately led me to this final product, which I’m actually pretty happy with. I still think there’s a lot more that could be done using this mechanism (and what about different shapes? different connection points?) that I just didn’t get to explore seeing as I ended up working until the last minute in order to get what I have.

I’d still consider it to be a decent result and I think the reason is largely because I started sketching and brainstorming and testing early. Granted I didn’t have a whole lot of iteration once I decided on the structure, and thinking out the hinging worked well enough that the first prototype was viable, but there was no other way for me to know that without doing it.

I have a very annoying tendency to overthink things, no matter how much I know that if I just did it everything would be much easier. There are only a few projects where I’ve successfully stopped thinking enough to get something done, although I think (I hope) I’ve gotten better at it. Unfortunately I’ve yet to find a way to make this consistently happen (and suggestions are appreciated) but as far as I can tell it’s going to require practice, not to mention some self-discipline. So yeah, that’s what I’m working on.