Thursday, November 30, 2023

(Eclipse Phase) Gatecrashing

In the course of researching this post (yes, sometimes I do research, though I usually take pains to make sure it doesn't show), I accidentally exposed myself to Roger Ebert's asinine opinions about video games. It really upset me and threw me off my usual rhythm. I think the thing that gets under my skin is that I otherwise hold a great deal of respect for the man. He was really good at what he did and left behind a body of work that (with certain notable exceptions) anyone should be proud of. On those days when I get tempted to think of myself as a literary critic, I am inevitably drawn back to earth by the sobering thought of comparing myself to people of his caliber. He was a lot better at this than I am, with a broad perspective borne of decades of experience, and it's a shame that his knowledge and experience gave him the ability to engage in the sort of high-grade sophistry that lesser intellects will struggle to refute.

I bring this up not because I want to pick a posthumous fight with one of the 20th century's great intellectual luminaries, but because getting these feelings off my chest helps me reset my emotional state. Now that I'm roughly back to the baseline, I can share the thought process that led me to google "are games art" in the first place:

I just read a book for a game, and I was planning to critique it as if it were art.

Okay, okay, smartass answers aside the real catalyst was Gatecrashing reminding me of a thought I had while I was still blogging about video games - that games were uniquely suited to presenting "setting-focused fiction."

It was a theory I never really developed, but the basic gist was that there's this way of thinking about fiction that boils down to "telling a story" and that puts video games in a weird place, because they can undeniably tell stories, but a lot of those stories are bad. I used to say that the only good video game stories were Borderlands 2 and Saints Row IV and that sounds like a joke, but it wasn't. I was just making the observation that most video game narratives fall apart if you include the stuff in-between the cut scenes as part of the story (cue: "bandits try to rob the Dragonborn" meme).

However, "telling a story" isn't actually a comprehensive (or even particularly enlightening) way to talk about fiction. Once you start exploring how to tell a story, you start to realize that the "story" part of telling a story is kind of optional. You ask yourself "does a psychological novel really need a plot" and the answer is "what do you mean by 'plot'?" It probably needs "events" that "happen," because humans are creatures that exist at a particular place and time, and thus are always at the mercy of happenstance, but the mere juxtaposition of events occurring sequentially in time (or separated in time, but united by a theme, possibly out of chronological order) does not, in itself, constitute a story. 

And that got me into a place where I started thinking about how I conceptualized fiction - perhaps it was more broadly a practice of curating an experience. A "story" might focus on plot, but if you could have a different type of fiction that focused on exploring a character, to the detriment of plot, maybe you could also have a third type of fiction, one that focused on exploring a setting.

(I know, I know, Tolkien and Herbert, but please stick with me here).

When I think about great video game experiences, I think of two things: 1) Tetris, and 2) the experience of being in a place. You take something like Bioshock and it has two or three great story beats, but what sticks with me, after all these years, is just the pure delight of exploring Rapture - its decaying art deco grandeur, its undersea gloominess, the oppressive miasma of unfathomable pressure without and sudden, frightful violence within. 

A couple of years ago, I went on a four day roadtrip, visiting the Painted Desert and the Getty Museum, driving up California Highway 1 from LA to San Francisco, and winding up in Sequoia National Forest. It was a life-changing experience that no fiction has ever come close to equaling, but Assassin's Creed: Odyssey has probably missed the mark the least. It's not that video games are only worthwhile for setting, or that only setting-rich games count as art, but rather that creating a setting and then giving it to an audience to explore is the thing that video games do better than any other medium.

Now, all of that was a long-winded introduction for me to eventually start talking about Gatecrashing, but there's a reason I got on this train of thought - we think of rpgs as "story games," but this book here resolutely refuses to tell complete stories. It introduces a dozen separate mysteries, but none of those mysteries have solutions. The reader has to make those up themselves. But it's still an intense artistic experience, because each of those mysteries is associated with a place.

That's something Eclipse Phase in general does very well. I talk about the game's "alotness" and make fun of things like Sunward including the Martian Time Zones, but I think you could make the argument that there's an artistic purpose to forcing me to read about the logistical preparations for exploring the far side of a stargate, or introducing four new gate-operating skills to compete for my limited points, or spending a half page each on the fiddly rules for survival equipment like the Faraday Armor or Bio Defense Unit. It's not always good game design and if I read this stuff in a novel, I'd probably send some ill-advised all-caps letter of complaint to the author, but they do contribute to the illusion of being in a place (I should also, at this point, apologize to those old-school modules for complaining about them spending so much time describing furniture - I get it now).

The only real question I'm left with after reading this book is whether the locations in Gatecrashing are, overall, a good fit for the Eclipse Phase setting as a whole. See, I love this kind of book, and I really enjoyed most of the specific things in this particular book, but I'm not entirely sold on gatecrashing (small "g") as an Eclipse Phase campaign model. The issue I have is that it takes focus away from the Solar system's transhuman politics and technology and it fails to put that focus back onto anything else. 

Rushing quicky through the context: At some point in the future, humanity builds military AIs with the capacity for exponential self-improvement. Those AIs start scanning and the Solar System and use their super-intelligence to figure out the subtle clues that lead them to an alien communication. Except, the reason the clues were so subtle in the first place was to act as a snare for super-intelligence. The communication is a multi-vector virus from an impossibly advanced species that corrupts the AIs and turns them against their creators. Those AIs kill 90-95% of all human beings and then mysteriously disappear. After that, the surviving people discover five Pandora Gates, which allow for interstellar travel, using advanced technology that violates their (and our) current understanding of the laws of physics. This book is all about using those gates, and what players might expect to find on the other side.

Which is all very well and good, except it doesn't really do anything with that context. The locations, by and large, would not be out of place in Trinity Continuum: Aeon (and, in fact the giant psychic fungus organisms that are each the size of a large forest reminded me greatly of Trinity's myriasoma) or one of the filler episodes of Star Trek. The characters in the setting believe the gates are the means by which the TITANs fled the Solar System. Those who read the GM's section of the core have reason to think they were made by a hostile, galaxy-spanning Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Neither of those threats directly appears anywhere in this book (not even the out-of-character GM's section).

I think the game's creators might be overestimating the mileage they can get out of nameless dread. Transhumanity is tinkering with a mystery of deep time, one which operates on principles they can't even begin to understand, but it mostly turns out okay. Going through the Door Last Used By the Things That Almost Killed Us is proving to be the right choice . . . for now. But when the book wants to make a point about humanity's reckless hubris, it really makes that "for now" do a lot of heavy lifting.

Maybe this is just a reader's problem, though. The book is inviting me to be a co-author of the setting, and if I were to GM a game of Eclipse Phase, I could put whatever I want on the other side of the gates, so my frustration at not having definitive answers to the mysteries is in part because I'm not using the book in its intended fashion. However, I could also counter that it's putting a lot of unnecessary work onto me, and that I'm not getting enough support to run the most obvious gatecrashing stories. If I'm not learning about the ETI's other victims or the fate of the TITANs, if I am, in fact, just doing more stories about the conflict between the outer system anarchists and the inner system hypercapitalists, I'd just as soon set those stories on a more-detailed Mars.

Overall, I'm going to call this book, "maybe a good start." Maybe.

Ukss Contribution: One of the gates is controlled by the anarchists of the Love and Rage Collective. We don't learn much about them here, but it's a great name, so I'm yoinking it.

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