Wednesday, 12 June 2013

After the End

(Trigger warnings for discussion of depression and suicide)

Depression is a poison, seeping through the landscape of our lives. It is a blanket; a cloak of darkness, spread out, growing, blocking out the sun. Depression boils up from the tunnels beneath the surface, where it has riddled the bedrock, ruined the structure and invited collapse. It is chaos, jealous and defiant of order and hungering only for destruction, for a world where nothing is worth striving for.

I seem to have a lot of metaphors for depression, but none of them really work. None of them are the truth of how depression functions, merely a convenient package that gives some semblance of a neat explanatory idea that you can take away and think that you know about a thing. This isn't surprising, it's what metaphors are. This isn't surprising, again, as none of these are really my own, nor are they really metaphors for depression. These are all among the metaphors for evil of popular fantasy fiction, and they are further the ones that give form to many RPGs where evil must be something you can hope to confront with violence.

They don't work because evil doesn't work like that, but they also don't work because the things they compare evil too don't work the way they are purported to. What of the poison that hijacks your heart, forcing it to propagate agony and death ever faster through the system? Of course, there is no place for that within the pacing of a story that requires that there always be space to pursue side-quests. And there is no place for that within an illness that undermines the basis of your existence. There is a qualitative difference between wanting to die and wanting to be dead. The former suggests a desire for active participation remains.

Specifically, evil is not a thing. It is not a team or a side, or even, much as I love AD&D's tables, an alignment. It is maybe, at best, an emergent property; a series of actions. Possibly it is an attitude, a predisposition, maybe, but that is dangerous territory. Depression isn't emergent, it's where you start and that is something that goes for for all mental illness, morally, experientially, speaking*. There is a long history that equates evil with the mentally unwell and that erroneous link is only strengthened when you believe illness to be action or evil to be ingrained.

The heroic character wants to die. Maybe they want to live more, but they clearly want to die as well. Their deaths, enacted a thousand times, in often ignoble circumstances far outweigh their lives and their successes. An unheroic end at the hands of a bandit in some hidden cave will not even inspire rebellion and legend, it will not contribute to the overthrow of an oppressive regime. There are a thousand alternate universes where the evil is never halted. A thousand other universes where our lives made no difference.

Here is the crux of what I wanted to write about in this entry. It is something that has been nagging me ever since I articulated my relationship with choice during the playing of CRPGs in the last post. The question of what happens after the end, whatever end that may be, of the game. After every end implied by every choice. Because the mechanics of choice in one of these games speaks to a darker truth of the experience of depression, one that can't be packaged up as a simple elegant comparison, because it is neither simple nor elegant. It is brutal and it is formed of the destruction of complexity.

What I was trying to say about depression (at least depression as it pertains to me) in the first paragraph is that it extends beyond the depressed. We are actors in a network and depression not only affects our actions, but the way that we view them. To be told that your choices will change the world is not news to the depressed, because we already know it. But here's why it is hell: I'm not talking about the big picture, the end game and the final scroll-text saying what happened next and who got married or what, I'm talking about the choice tree itself.

Every single choice you make is a destruction of possibility, and in an RPG, every single choice is on you as the other actors are all automata. What an act of sheer brutality against the future a game like that is! Forget your shooters, where your part is as scripted as the enemies': there is no truth in the violence there. Death is binary, it is the truncated and difficult life that your actions, your very presence, has created that really hurts. The CRPG is a broken Nietzsche simulator, a systematic representation of the will to power misunderstood and run rampant. It is also what it feels like to be depressed.

The heroic character wants to die, but they strive for a death, at least, that makes a change. A death that imposes their will on the world as indelibly as their life has done. I don't want to die, I want to be dead. I want my impact to cease; the sum of it to date to be erased. Of course that can never happen and so to die would be a waste of the time I've spent so far. I might as well rectify the situation such as it is and do what I can. Curiously enough, or maybe not considering who I purport to be, the deal I made with myself many years ago (the one I will never renege on and which has stayed my hand ever since, even in the worst of moments) is couched and phrased in the terms of a game. If I die, I lose. I want to see that final screen. It is why I find it so hard not to complete those games I have started and why I find it so sad when I do.

There is a way out, of course, because this form of depression betrays an arrogance born of self-obsession and uncontrollable reflection. Real people are not scripted, but players themselves, and they have the capcity to make choices. The RPG speaks to my darkest fear that everything I do destroys the options of others but that assumes their options stem from me. Our lives are networks, and we impact on each other, sometimes catastrophically. Our actions have consequences, but the choices of others have to be held to be as important as our own.

Nietzsche would hate me for that.

*I know that neurobiologically there is evidence to say that mental illness is emergent but I am not talking neurobiology here. It would be a category error to believe that insight into mechanism necessarily informs and provides directly mapped insight into expression. However paradoxical it may seem, there may be no one discrete cause for a phenomenon but the phenomenon itself remains a discrete cause on further events.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Stress and RPGs

This is a slightly more personal post, so it's a bit more about feelings than analysis, so I hope you're ok with that.

I don't, on the whole, cope with stress very well.

When the stressful situation is sudden and intense I cower and freeze even as I watch things happen that I know I have the power to oppose. I am bigger and stronger than a lot of people (and as a child my dad was... notorious within my neighbourhood) but to an extent that never helped, as for most of the time growing up no-one ever really tried to fight me and so the wall between anticipation and action remained steady and strong and it was one I was less and less inclined to break myself. This is a physical explanation, but it applies to and I think informs all conflicts I find myself in the middle of. Without pre-warning in which to prepare myself then no matter what my instincts or intellect tell me I should do, I find that action is tantalisingly out of my grasp.

When the stress is a slow-burn, pressure rather than a blow, I do better in the sense of reaction, but maybe worse in the sense of the toll. What I mean by this is that I respond, I do what needs to be done at the time that it needs to be done by, but it grinds me down and closes out my view. This kind of stress is functionally analogous in many, but not all ways, to bouts of depression. A main difference with depression is that there is no end point, no goal in sight, to make the ground out responses to stimuli a meaningful exchange. You get nothing in return.

I had been quite stressed of late, as I was preparing for a module exam in my accountancy course, although I have taken it now, enabling me to actually do other things like think about writing. I have also been playing The Witcher 2, a hilariously 'adult' RPG in the western style which never knowingly misses the opportunity to give you a badly rendered opportunistic or voyeuristic sex scene with all the eroticism of the old British 'Confessions of...' sex comedies. That's not why I'm playing it, mind, I just really needed to get that off my chest.

When I'm stressed like this, as well as when I'm depressed, I often go in for a CRPG like the Witcher for a number of reasons. One of the effects of the closing down of mental space - imagine it as if you have no peripheral vision, but it's not just vision, it's everything to do with the way you think - is that I can't concentrate on as many stories, or on as deep stories as I might like. In general we're talking one or two long-running TV shows and that's it. I can't do novels, the words just slide off my brain without making an impression or worse, if I'm studying, the very act of picking something up that isn't a text book fills me with guilt.

And yet, I still crave narrative. This is where RPGs fit in, because they are just swimming with narrative. A big old soupy mess of it, with less depth than a paddling pool, but oh so much of it lolloped out at you as and when you want to take it. And below this oil slick of unreconstructed tropage there is the hidden narrative of the player, where you can decide back stories and motivations for yourself and away from the speculation of other media consumers - as although they may have played the game they won't have played your version of the game.

RPGs are not about challenge. Their combat systems are very rarely as deep as they think they are and the entire mechanic emphasises grind rather than skill. Occasionally an element of tactical thinking is required, but even then it often boils down to finding a way to split large groups of enemies down into manageable chunks before mechanically grinding them into a red and twitching mess of manageable chunks for the digitised carrion the coders have included as a stab at dark and serious set dressing. As I said, you're not forcing yourself to learn a whole new mode of play when you pick one up which makes it ideal for those times when you can't.

What RPGs are about is choice, or more specifically an illusion of choice. When the time comes you don't choose to  fight, but more importantly you don't freeze either - you don't choose not to. There is always that glorious moment of glitch as the game shifts from exploration mode to combat mode, as idle animations shift and everyone draws their weapons. I love that moment because it has a certainty of purpose that I can never have myself. No action-game protagonist has ever questioned the legitimacy of action as a response to a threat to their view of how the world ought to be - othrewise they wouldn't be in an action game, they'd be in The Walking Dead*.

They are also about the choices you make in conversation trees, which is again an illusion of control, but a great one. Conversation choices, in a well designed modern RPG, will not fundamentally alter the outcome of the game-as-game. You will still face off against the final boss and achieve some form of victory. Yes, the form of the victory or the form of the world you leave behind may well be different depending on your choices, but this is all narrative and emotion. There is often a best-possible-ending, but even that is subjective. What if your best ending is the one where everyone dies?

But these curtailed choices are what make the games for me, and what make them ideal for those dark periods of stress and depression. When I'm down in the dumps, with what can only be described as a tunnel consciousness, then those are the time that I don't feel I have any choices whatsoever. It is the managing of choice in a CRPG that gives me a view of the possibilities in real life as it reminds me that there are options, and that they do have an effect, but it combines it with a comforting fiction that no matter what you choose it won't be deleteriously bad. It is also nice to get to play with choice in a controlled environment, and what am I doing gaming if I don't like playing with things in a controlled and essentially consequence-less environment?

*I loved that game so hard, but seriously - never play it when you're in the kind of mood where you might be thinking about questioning your life choices. Unless you enjoy being a wreck for the rest of the day.