Thursday, 15 August 2013

A Brief Overview of Sanity Mechanics

As they are among the more representational mediums, and the more personally focused, both video games and tabletop role-playing games have a history of attempting to not only depict but to model mental illness. This is only right and understandable as this is what these games do; they take aspects of reality and model them in a way that allows us to experience them in a vicarious manner with more or less realism or slant depending on the design goals of the game

This process always involves some abstraction. In wargames berserk or otherwise uncontrollable troop types (whether through madness or stubbornness) are a common feature, especially in more fantastic rather than historical games. Usually each turn whether the troop obeys orders or follows its own whims is randomly determined, the reasoning behind this generally irrelevant. What those whims boil down to is also generally quite abstracted, as having to follow complex algorithms to determine the behaviour of troops that don't follow orders can break the flow of the game; the game is modelling combat rather than motivation after all. Similarly there will often be some level of fear response modelled, but this will usually be a part of a general morale mechanic as again we want to know whether a unit does what you want them to, not particularly what's going on in their minds at the same time.

When you start modelling individuals rather than groups motivation matters more, as does response to stimuli. Roleplaying itself, as a ruleset at least, developed amongst other things out of an attempt to model the actions of strategically important individuals like sappers within the context of wargames, although it quickly surpassed these beginnings. While early adventuring games focused generally on physical challenges, popularising the hit-point system as a way of conceptualising overall physical resilience, they tended to either sublimate mental resistance into the same pool or go for the all-or-nothing 'saving throw vs. x' approach (both of which are still present to this day).

Time now for a small digression on hit points. They often get a bad rap; as a storytelling tool they are ugly and confusing and mechanically there are a few glitches inherent at some of the extreme ends, as anyone who's had their Level 1 Fighter killed by a badger can attest to. The truth is they are an abstraction and a particularly numerical one at that but their elegance and continual popularity lie not in the way they model reality but the way they make the game play. It's all about the bookkeeping. I could probably write an entire article about the different ways of conceptualising hit point damage, but really that's down to how you tell the story in your game, from a practical point of view hit points are just easier to track than damage charts and less intrusive into the game than wound penalties. They aren't appropriate in every situation, but they are still functional in most.

It wasn't long before the burgeoning hobby started diversifying, with the horror-based game Call of Cthulhu introducing a separate pool of mental hit points termed 'sanity points'. Call of Cthulhu was not really modelling real life so much as modelling the books of Lovecraft, where contact with the Great Old Ones, their minions and their ilk eventually leaves characters either dead or insane; in this case insanity being a sort of catch-all debilitating  state of mental degeneracy. In this context, terminology aside, sanity points are a really neat system, maintaining the same basic tension of 'this is how much further you can go before your character is unplayable anymore' that hit points provide but adding a second track to manage. Now going to the library can be as dangerous as entering a dungeon.

However, just as hit points can lack subtlety in interpretation, leading to characters who are essentially bullet-proof until they are suddenly dead so too can sanity gauges. On the physical damage front games have employed all manner of embellishments, from critical hit charts to permanent wounds, as a way of fleshing out that thin line between life and death. In games where one of the key innovations is continuity of individuals (as opposed to wargames where individuals are generally undifferentiated) then many have taken the position that losing one fight should not necessarily mean losing the game. This is where the idea of permanent mental disability as a punishment for, or at least a result of, failure emerges. It does so not, I believe, out of a desire to stigmatise or even make a point about how mental illness functions, but out of design choices based on modular thinking: this system works here so we can use the same mechanic here rather than try to introduce something new.

Essentially, if we're being generous, sanity mechanics like this are roughly modelling, or attempting to model, something along the lines of PTSD. But games love random tables and variety and so the urge has often been there to put in various different psychiatric disorders as possible consequences of failed saving throws or dropping below zero sanity or what have you, no matter what the real-world triggers and predictors for such conditions might actually be. As designers have started to realise that this lumping-together of conditions is not always very accurate we've since started to see discrete disorders either as pre-selectable traits or as specific responses to certain stimuli, alongside the continuation of a mental-resilience based model.

Video games, meanwhile, have long used the hit point abstraction as the underpinning of their damage mechanics for much the same reason: that it makes the coding easier. However, while in roleplaying it is possible to  visualise the depletion of hit points not so much as actual wounds but as loss of stamina, damage to equipment and a general sense of using up your will or ability to go on, the intensely visual nature of video games tends to suggest that each blow that lands actually lands. This dissonance has of course got worse as graphics have got better.

When video games have attempted to portray madness through mechanics rather than narration it is no wonder that in general they have followed the sanity point model, for the same reasons that they tend to use hit points for health. Where they have differed from tabletop games is in the effects that depletion of these sanity meters have. Again the key is the visual nature of the games as well as the success they enjoy in hiding the workings of the algorithms from their players. 

Zero sanity usually means a game over, either via catatonia, unplayable mania or or sometimes even the suggestion of suicide, and the decent into madness by necessity therefore is played out in the lower reaches of the sanity gauge. While a tabletop game might introduce madness through penalties or behaviour guides after the resolution of the traumatic event - after the failed saving throw indicates the final loss of control - in a visual game where the convention is to reset after failure the madness is often introduced as a feedback loop in that process of failing and presented through visual clues. In this way madness is presented and coded as glitch and hallucination in its entirety: to be mad is to see what isn't there, or maybe to see what is there and what others cannot or will not see.

Ultimately all of these approaches can be interesting, both mechanically and representationally, but they can also come with often unintended semantic baggage, implying things that are damaging and just untrue about the processes of mental health. they can also just be crass. I will leave you with the video games ur-example. Every sanity effect in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, one of the first games to specifically model sanity loss as a visual phenomena based on a sanity point mechanic. It's just... crass really.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Let's Go Back to College: Some background and a discussion of Community S2 Ep14 - Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

I'd like to make it clear that it's not all doom and gloom here, and that I will be looking at approaches to mental illness that I think can be both valid and constructive at some point or another. In fact, part of what might best be termed the thesis of the book I am writing and which this blog is supporting is that there are certain overlaps in the way that we talk about madness and the way that we talk about gaming and that this adds an extra layer of interest and meaning to the way in which games approach and model mental illness.

It's just that gaming is also a part of the popular media, and popular media on a whole is really very bad at representing mental illness either accurately or compassionately. This shouldn't be surprising, as popular media is really not very good at depicting a whole lot of things (gender, race, emotional development, learning new skills, how people actually talk to one another). This is because, rather than build a new language of representation from the ground up, in the majority of cases an instance of media will be more or less reliant on the language of representation as extant. Even where it is more thoughtful, pasting in standard signifiers, or tropes, as a shorthand in less 'important' representations allows a piece of work to concentrate fully on the themes it would like to explore.

This is why procedural detective stories often make extensive use of 'mad' killers. Not having to spend time delineating a motive gives the story more space to explore the mechanics of investigation. They are able to do this because previous instances of popular media have already established the idea that psychosis is a sufficient predictor for violence and it is expected that the media consumer will be aware of this, having seen previous examples that have spelled the link out. Of course, this process blunts any nuance that might (although it may well not) have been in those previous depictions and perpetuates to further depictions the even flatter shorthand that all psychotic individuals are violent. This is a fairly basic form of memetic propagation of stereotype and you should be able to see something similar in any number of damaging and stifling or just plain limiting depictions of any group that can in any way be conceived of as a group.

While a lot of media is content to unquestioningly reabsorb the same assumptions in the name of expedience there are, I think, three main ways in which this sort of representational smoothing can be resisted. The first is to start from scratch, building a new representational language through rigorous direct observation filtered through a specific aesthetic , but this is unlikely to be popular at least at first because you will be asking your audience to do almost as much work as you are.

The second, and most common, is for creators to work generally within the current language, but to challenge those shortcuts and givens which they see as particularly untrue. Crucially, this means that a given work may well contain plenty of tropes either seemingly or actually unquestioningly as a way of expediting the storytelling around the sections of greater reflection. I am a massive fan of the show Elementary, for example, and one of the things I love about it is that it explores male/female friendships in a properly nuanced way without resorting to standard romanticising or sexual tension tropes. However, in order to have the space to do this and also present a compelling mystery every week it has more than once fallen back on the trope of madness proxying as a sort of un-parseable evil and although I'm not happy about that I can live with it.

That these new approaches to old representations may themselves fall back into the general language of popular culture is just an indication of how popular culture works and explains the curious dissonance we get from watching shows we ourselves may have had no problems with at the point at which they first aired but twenty years down the line feel just horribly offensive. It's not that, in the majority of cases, our essential decency as human beings has changed (although some of us may have done work to understand our own internal biasis as a personal exercise) but that the language of representation has changed around us (hopefully progressively, and hopefully, yes, changing our opinions about previously marginalised groups in the process).

And finally, the third approach is not so much an attempt to rewrite the language of representation, but rather to point out its failings from within by subverting and remixing it. This is where Community comes in, as it is an exemplar of this approach. Almost everything Community says or does is a reference or a trope; every character is, or at least began as, a bundle of stereotypes and yet through this they are given a freedom of expression and depth that comes from a relentless expression of '...yes, and they are also people.' It's a fine line, one that is only really possible within the magic realist confines of a very genre-savvy sitcom, and one that as the show's fourth season shows it is also very easy to over-step. However, when it works it is glorious because it is able to make you question the received language of representation whilst simultaneously utilising it to create incredibly densely packed stories that are still easy enough to follow.

Community touches upon the separation of the game world (i.e. the universe and all its rules and connections that is encompassed by and exists only for the duration of a game as it is played) from the real world in a number of episodes. It has a major arc exploring the the overlap between fantasy and reality, which although not necessarily restricted to gaming as such is heavily invested in the concept of play. It has had to date not one but three paintball episodes and, while the paintball episode of any given show will by virtue of its very structure examine the limit and transition between the real and the game world, Community's do so consistently, repeatedly and enthusiastically.

I won't say any more for now on the ideological cross-pollination between (concepts of) degraded or distorted ideas of reality in game-playing and mental dysfunction as I am if not writing a whole book then at least writing whole chapters on this sort of thing. But I will recommend one episode of Community that, if you are reading this blog, you will almost certainly get. The episode is Season 2, Episode 14 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and it is great. It gets both gaming and mental distress (in this case the sadness and loneliness that both stem from and feed into depression) right and examines the way in which the former can be a part of the way in which one mediates the latter.

Interestingly for Community, which usually takes us fully into the fantasy world (see the stop motion and video game episodes in particular), this episode is rigorously set in reality. This enables it to say that what is really transformative about playing roleplaying games is that you are simultaneously sitting about with your mates and yet also inhabiting a different world with them - a transgressive space where you can do and say and explore things and thoughts and emotions ordinarily unavailable to you. It concludes that the best games (of D&D) are the ones that let us test the limits of of quite who we are and how we feel within the relative protective skin of the game-world, not just the ones where we kill the most monsters. It is also a rather lovely ode to the joy of social gaming and is chock-full of in-jokes for role-players of a certain ilk.

So yeah: you should watch Community anyway, but watch that episode even if you don't and you will hopefully get a bit of an understanding of some of the ideas I will be talking about as this blog goes on.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

L.A. Noire: How You can Destroy your Game by Not Thinking About What it Says

Spoilers ahead.
There is a lot to disappoint in L.A. Noire: it was one of the most hyped games of 2011 after all. You could discuss the insecure vacillation between the linear adventure and sandbox forms; the problematic use of period depictions of racism and sexism in a game where the lead character is a cypher for 21st century values; or even the fact that it doesn't really feel like much like noir, despite the name on the box. Many players have taken the critical position that the core of the game, the investigation and interview mechanic, fails to achieve its stated aim. I too would agree with this happily, although I still enjoyed the game nevertheless. For my money it’s an efficient example of the inventory-management mystery-adventure genre, just with the addition of realistic gurning and facial tics, and I really liked the sense of methodically working a case that, at its best, the game luxuriates in.
So where is my problem? For me the way in which L.A. Noire disappoints most frustratingly, and most interestingly for the purposes of this blog, is in its introduction and use of mental illness within the story and how this unnecessarily impacts on not just that story but the gameplay itself. This is not to say that I wasn’t disappointed by the aspects mentioned above, and I will be touching on those in the following discussion to an extent as well. I will also be spoiling pretty much everything there is to spoil, so you have been warned.