How do you feel about words like actor/actress, hero/heroine?
How do you feel about words like actor/actress, hero/heroine?
Would you consider deadly premonition a game that has received enough coverage for it to be exempt from a zeal write-up?
The magic only works against monsters, in that, moon tiara magic is no good as a deposit or the first month’s rent and it doesn’t pay the bills or stop your friends from breaking your heart and it can’t heal the parts of you that aren’t whole.
Even in the most desperate of moments, magic attacks cannot compare to blunt banality of the violence of the gun.
Only the powers of adults can do these things. The powers of adults are not beautiful but they are much, much stronger. They are the quenching and magic is the fire. Adulthood is the moment of realizing that the arts and the sciences will always be stronger than magic.
Alright! Goodness, this is exciting. We had an amazing first month far beyond our wildest dreams! So this month we’re excited to announce an additional goal: Game Development. We’d like to begin showing what we believe in here at ZEAL rather than just talking about it all the time. We’d love for ZEAL to show that both critique and creation can coexist in a lovely horror sphere together! This Month, with your help, I hope to release Body Temperatures, a game about a self under different circumstances with two playable body temperatures! Your donations will help cover assistance from others and help pay for art and possibly more for the finished game. Please share the glorious message of Mammon across the internet so we can make this a reality!
On the first night I spent in Olympia my beautiful new friends read The Real Thing together, which is a play by Tom Stoppard that I like a whole bunch, and it’s mostly about writing and adultery.
So, the main character, Henry is a bit of an ass but he’s a good writer and knows how to make it good. His new wife, Annie, who’s awesome, is involved with a campaign to free this soldier who protested setting up missile bases and he’s supposed to clean up this play the soldier’s written about politics and fascism and bullshit and whatever and he doesn’t want to do it because the play is horrifically written and cliched as hell. Annie accuses him of being snobby and elitist, which he is, but he’s not wrong that the way something is written really fucking matters. There’s no blood in stale, simplified platitudes and no humanity in characters that exist only as the vehicle for cliched ideology. Annie isn’t wrong either—there’s tons gatekeeping in the literary world—but what makes “good” writing isn’t something that is decided, arbitrarily, by academics; there is no perfect formula for great writing. Everyone would use it if there was. But there are ways to write better—to make characters feel more real, for them to convey not just the sledgehammer of melodrama but the nuance of lived experience. It’s good not because it’s some professor’s definition of art but because it’s honest and nuanced and detailed, not a flat reduction of human experience.
EXCEPT sometimes art that isn’t good makes us feel things anyway, and Henry absolutely loves vapid pop music. It’s a major feature of his character and while no one every calls this out or talks about it, he seems to feel real genuine emotion from pop singles and can’t connect with classical music at all.
Me, I’m like: same. Because while I love stuff that’s well written and understand how and why it is better, I still really wanna watch dumb anime which does a much better of job of making me cry than reading the best and most well written books I read, though I’ll still say crying or having a strong emotional reaction isn’t really a great indicator of whether or not it’s any good. But like, those reactions are still valid and real, and there’s this idea that we should only be moved by great art, not pop art. For the way it looks to me, it’s that great art helps me understand the complicated depth of emotion, pop art conveys the raw emotion itself. Which is maybe why pop art is “manipulative” rather than honest because it’s pulling out all the stops to make you feel something if that feeling is shallow, unearned, cliched, or nonsensical. I mean, Grey’s Anatomy offends me because of the gross relationship behavior it celebrates and normalizes and how it sands off the depth and complication of any actual human interaction, and it sells it to you by playing emotionally appropriate music whenever it wants you to feel a thing, not, say, by actually depicting humans interact.
But there is still tons of pop art that is honest and genuine and the traditional reaction to it is that people only like this because they don’t know any better. Yet there are tons of people who supposedly should know better, like Henry, that prefer the pop stuff. So why not ask the question: If so many people like it, what is it that’s happening there, if not good writing/music/art? For me, Sailor Moon’s bubbly magical aesthetic is like, super personally important despite me being fully aware most of the episodes are not good or well written but like, there’s tons of amazing stuff in there still, like the fashion and the transformations and the slowly developing friendships between the characters.
Kind of like, there are stories that tell me about the world, but there are also stories I want to spend time in. And like, there are characters that are part of great stories, and there are characters I would like to hang out with and relate to. I love The Real Thing but other than Henry’s daughter, who rules, I’d rather get lunch anyone in that show than spend five minutes with Henry.
What’s inspiring or important to me isn’t necessarily the stuff that’s well written. And I feel like: that’s actually obvious? I mean, kind of a lot of the point of “good” writing is that it helps us understand an experience that’s outside our own. Just because an experience is really well conveyed doesn’t mean that it’s especially relevant or meaningful to you. And like, since a lot of the literature that gets published is by and for dead white guys you get a lot of beautifully crafted nuanced emotional depictions of assholes you never wanted to hang out with. Call me when Hemingway writes the Sailor Moon reboot.
The gatekeeping isn’t saying that some writing is better than others, it’s saying that feelings that come from better writing are somehow more valid. You know, we’re supposed to only read, sophisticated classical literature and only have feelings about that stuff? Bullshit. You have feelings about what connects to you no matter how bad it sucks. Like I said in my Gone Home review, sometimes the invitation to put yourself in the work is way more raw and honest than a sophisticated depiction of something you have no interest in.
Henry’s cares are pretty boring and cliched to be honest but like, for a lot of people the pop stuff is inspiring because that’s the raw emotion, the world as you feel it before you put it into words. It doesn’t matter how inept it is if it feels like the real thing—but it’s not really the real thing until that feeling is put into words.
[Crossposted from my Patreon. If you enjoy this, and the other special features on Mammon Machine: ZEAL, please consider a donation so we can continue to provide high quality writing about amazing old games!]
The best game I have ever played is The Manhole, which was made in Hypercard and played by me on an Apple Macintosh. You could click on almost anything and all sorts of funny stuff would happen. It opens with a manhole, and when you slide it off, a great beanstalk grows up and into the clouds, and you can climb up it or go down into the sewer and you move in and out of fairytales and talk to fairytale creatures and you click on everything and strange and stranger things happen on the way to stranger and stranger places with stranger and stranger creatures. It’s like Fantasia with less music and more clicking.
There is no goal and no point but to explore. It came out in 1988 (the original b&w hypercard version, by the way, looks way way better than the weird ancient color CGI of the masterpiece edition) and it has the best character in the history of everything and his name is Mr. Dragon, and he is a dragon who wears a peace sign medallion and has a lot of chest hair and he offers you a biscuit, asks if you would like it warmed up, and incinerates it in gout of fire when you say yes. “Oooooh baby, what a shame” he says. He is completely weird and totally unexplained and utterly adorable and I love him. I still love him.
Baroque is dark vaguely judeo-christian body horror Japanese roguelike full of cackling weirdos like Mr. Dragon. Baroque is beautiful and it’s just like The Manhole except macabre and horrifying and cute and funny instead of just cute and funny.
Baroque is very close to being The Manhole plus a roguelike. Consider ZEAL’s review of Baroque equally warning as endorsement, because you might have a lot more fun reading this review than playing the game. ZEAL loves The Manhole because it never told us “no” or made us do anything silly or arbitrary or ridiculous to keep exploring. We cannot say the same about Baroque. But we still love it.
World Building Means Leaving It Rot
An ironclad rule of game design is that, when human beings buy a video game and put a video disk unit into a computer operated game machine, the absolute last thing they want to do is play a video game. Designers have overcome this problem by easing players into the experience—with some unskibbable cutscenes or a tutorial or tedious self-directed movement towards an obvious goal while berated by voiceovers.
That was a joke, this is the worst possible way to set up a game. Beginnings are hard, and I am sympathetic to the difficulty of getting a player to understand and care about a fictional world and its fictional people and fictional concerns. I find though that the way I most quickly become interested and invested in the world is when I start living in it, not when I have a Wikipedia entry read to me via voiceover. It is extremely hard to get anyone to care about a fictional world because: all of this stuff is totally fake and there is no reason at all for anyone to care about people and worlds that aren’t real. Presuming that players will be is a dangerous mistake, but there is a bit of that in the Clockwork Orange force-open-the-eyelids approach to the opening hour of a video game, which assumes that the story, characters, and world are of such vital importance that player will not be allowed to begin the game without knowing them while nearly admitting that players would gladly skip it if they could. To me this seems like setting a world up for failure.
Perhaps part of this philosophy is that the cutscene gives context to the game, but this seems to be a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, which is giving the player a reason to care about playing the game bits or understanding why the game bits exist. Please do let me know if you feel otherwise, but while I have totally made lots of jokes about games for given no context for what they are making me do, that has never once stopped me from playing them. I love game stories when they are interesting in and of themselves, and when I have a good story to explore, I don’t need anyone to push me or force me.
And so Baroque’s approach to the world is sort of the exact opposite of conventional design. There is a title movie looks like the opening sequence of Evangelion or Persona in that it’s anime and vaguely relgious and makes no sense and it provides no narrative context whatsoever. And then, when you press start, the game begins you’re instantly in this wasteland world with a dark sky and crumbling but functional industrial buildings with spinning turbines
That’s weird. That’s very weird. Vaguely judeo-christian Japanese RPGs are exactly the sort of games you would expect to have dozens of cutscenes, lots of melodrama, and several hours of introductory nonsense before the actual game started, but Baroque doesn’t do that, which isn’t to say that it isn’t full of words whose meaning in the context of the game isn’t defined (“baroques” “consciousness orbs” “idea sephirah”) or that the characters regularly refer to events the player has no way of knowing about or understanding or caring about or any of the other narrative cliches that tend to kick me out of stories. It’s that the game doesn’t force any of it on the player and when it chooses to display a cutscene, it is relatively short and once you have been playing the game for a bit.
This is the town and it’s a place where you can do RPG town things except the point is the world is a gross inhospitable mess and people are barely people.T and you instantly sent to a shantytown in a wasteland full of inscrutable characters who are all sort of human-like but also clearly distorted and wrong but seemingly unconcerned about that. A small child with a giant bag on his head who only cares about seeing new items and promises to store them for you. An imposing sentry angel. A Baroquemonger, whose name indicates his probably important but no one will explain what a Baroque is. The Coffin Man, whose body is half flesh and half—stone, bone or something like it, and he can’t speak a sentence that doesn’t include the word goddamnit.
There are a few more people too, but it’s right around this point that you will probably notice that there is a bar below your health that has been slowly depleting. Eventually you’ll find that the self-hating rambling of Longneck conceals a deeper guilt, that the speech of The Horned Girl is bizarre because she is speaking your thoughts out loud, and that most of the people in the town have no intention of being any help to you at all—but there’s not enough time to find that out until many lives run through the dungeon.
The design here is that you have all the time in the world to talk to everyone in town and explore as you like—but you don’t know that yet. All you know is that you’ve got a depleting meter and no obvious way to make it go up. You’ll figure out the trick eventually but for now it’s telling you to keep going and what this does is establishes the world as tense and unwelcoming and degenerating. It pushes against the impulse to explore just enough to leave a bit of mystery left in the levels, as exploring everything isn’t the best option, but still, you need to explore enough to find enough items and experience to survive.
But you don’t know that yet, so you go to the tower everyone’s been talking about and there an Angel accuses you of having done terrible things you can’t remember, gives you a gun and tells you to kill god on the last floor of the dungeon. Baroque’s world does not exist to explain why you’re playing a video game. You play the dungeon crawler because you enjoy the dungeon crawler and well, you do. There was no context at all necessary, not even a tutorial, which only comes after you’ve beaten or died in the first dungeon, which I think is the best place possible for a tutorial: explaining the specifics of the stuff I’ve mostly worked out the basics of on my own.
People Make the Place
On ZEAL’s official list of What Is Awesome About Video Games, weirdo NPCs is in the top ten. Video games are so great at minor characters that say and do weird inscrutable things and exist in tiny limited settings and have like a dozen or so lines of dialogue. My favorite kinds of NPCs are the ones that don’t really care too much about the player—they have their own cares and concerns and the player’s only interesting to them in relation to those. This is the power NPCs have: they get to babble on and you have to listen. You can feel strong with your sword and guns and piles of magic items but you still have to listen patiently to the eerie and creepy denizens of Baroque and you can’t talk back because you’re literally mute. They are the ones who make the world, and you wander through what is their world and listen to their strange and inscrutable wants and desires that have nothing at all to do with saving the world but just existing in it, and they don’t seem to care that the place is strange and weird and horrifying.
Baroque is a world with characters who exist totally independent of your thoughts and cares and concerns. They have their own opinions, they disagree with each other, they treat the player differently. Some are smug, some desperate, some delusional, some guilty, some repentant. The player character is important to them, but they don’t exist for the sake of the player in the way of most games. I care about them because they have cares of their own, you know? Someone who just is there to be a shop or bank isn’t interesting to me, but a bank that you have to punch to get your stuff back, who is himself genuinely interested in collecting items for his own entertainment…I can relate to that!
This is a nice feeling. The feeling is that the game trusts me! It trusts that I will care about what is happening on my own, at my own pace, and that it doesn’t have to frontload anything in order to get me to care about what is happening in this game. It trusts that I will put together what is happening on my own, that I will do the detective work of making sense of the dialogue and the various perspectives of the different characters I will encounter in the world, and that I can be trusted to experience the game at a pace that I can control. I loved The Manhole as a kid because it also trusted me to just experience things at my own pace, and to play as much as I liked. Giving the player direct tasks immediately strongly encourages them to focus on just completing the task. Games are great at directing players, but when they do, they shut off the player from self-guiding.
Which is, unfortunately, something Baroque does. It doesn’t completely leave you to your own devices, and the place I stopped enjoying Baroque was the place when I realized that I was stuck and wouldn’t be able to open up more of the game until I had fulfilled some requirements that pretty much necessitated looking it up on the internet. Everyone: this totally broke our heart. We were having so much fun exploring at our own pace until this point. Here is the one thing about Baroque that makes it simply beautiful instead of perfect, and it’s that the puzzles and weird things you have to do unravel it all are too obscure to figure out without an FAQ. But it’s also because of me, and how hard it is to play games structured like this anymore.
How A Roguelike Tells a Story
Roguelikes, of course, have the very obvious goal of reaching the end of the dungeon. But! Permadeath and randomness complicate how primary that goal is. Because in most roguelikes you are not only most likely going to die before reaching your goal, and furthermore, because the dungeon is full of strange surprises you are meant to discover the solutions to on your own. I am not so much a fan of Nethack, which has hyper-obscure solutions to diving the dungeon that seem to me at least impossible to figure out on my own, but even favorites like Brogue or 868-HACK are full of situations and abilities that interact in almost infinite ways and there’s no way to see all of them until running the dungeon hundreds of times.
I think players grasp that this is happening very quickly. And as a result of being conscious of both the high difficulty and their lack of understanding of how best to beat the game, “beating the game” starts taking a backseat to “understanding the game.” Because of random generation, bypassing them is not as important as understanding them—solving a problem by chance accident will not help you the next time. Because of high difficulty and permadeath, it’s easy to accept the inevitability of death, and to start a run not with the intention of winning, but of understanding and exploring. This is part of how roguelikes were able to, at a very early point in the history of game design, solve the problem of how to make losing fun.
Baroque’s narrative is not much different from the game design of other roguelikes—the NPCs are distributed in a similarly nonlinear way. I’ve talked about the NPCs in town, but there are NPCs in the dungeon too, quite a lot in fact, and they are all over the place. Baroque’s dungeons are full of horrifying and surreal enemies but also horrifying and surreal NPCs. There is Eliza, who retreats behind a fake wall when you meet her, afraid of and recoiling from the protagonist. There is Alice, who acts like the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend and is all the more bizarre for how out of place that is in the dungeon, and a host of others that offer hints, items, useful advice, useless advice, tales of regret and more information that is useless than is useful. The dialogue—the whole story, the whole world, pulled me in because it was useless, because it was unnecessary, and because the game did not force me to experience it in a rigid order but instead let me explore and stumble upon it. A lot of them can do useful things if you have experimented with them, but their primary reason to be is to talk to the player and tell them stuff about themselves and the world.
This is where the roguelike design ends up being a lot like a world like The Manhole, because as a consequence of the randomly generated dungeon rooms and the slow nonlinear way you explore the dungeon, it doesn’t matter what order things happen in or when or where you meet everyone. In just the same way that you begin to slowly understand how to play a roguelike, to get better at it by understanding thoroughly the ways every detail of its world works, you slowly understand the story and world of Baroque paying attention to what the NPCs say, how they behave, and the aesthetic details of the world.
Where It Rusts
Let me speak a little, though, about my personal cares. Nothing too personal—I just mean, like, that I have a job. And a deadline for this article. And it’s hard, you know, to keep playing over and over again, without feeling like I’m moving forward like I would have when I was fifteen and only had one game at a time to play at a time and all worlds seemed equally worthy of my time and energy to explore to their limit. Baroque wouldn’t have worked for me when I was nine though, either, not just because it’s much more difficult to play than The Manhole, but because I wouldn’t have had the patience to continue when I stopped finding new things to explore and punching mechanical fish grew too tiresome. There is a lot of fish punching in Baroque. That might be another reason to not enjoy it.
I kinda want to maybe, gently hold Baroque’s hand and say, you know, it’s okay. You can let players experience the story without putting anything in their way. Without making them do anything but keep playing and exploring. Baroque trusts the player a lot more than the average game, but is doesn’t go far enough. Some of the NPC interactions are necessary for advancing through the dungeon and unlocking more stuff to do. That’s the opposite of what I like about roguelikes. What I love is that everything is always there from the beginning, and it’s simply that the world is long and difficult and random that you can only experience a fraction of it at a time. Why couldn’t every single bit of NPC dialogue be useless and unnecessary and there not as the vehicle of an obscure puzzle but only—just like the grotesque and awesome Japanese horror manga aesthetic of the world and characters and monsters—for me to appreciate just because it’s there and not because I need to figure out how it’s going to solve me the puzzle that lets me continue to explore the game.
Baroque gets a 7/10 from ZEAL and please, anyone who is making a roguelike, play it not because the story is, itself, interesting or compelling or one that makes sense (though it actually does sort of do all those things, even though you wouldn’t expect it) but because it tells a story in the exact way that a roguelike is designed: here is a world, explore it and then die. I’m interested in what might happen in a roguelike where the story, every single bit of it, was entirely superfluous. Standing offer, I would love to just write a story into a roguelike! Without changing a single thing, I think you could tell quite an interesting story. Without worrying about a thing. Useless, superfluous, meaningless—worth nothing expect for itself.
I was thinking about writing a story about teens or twentysomethings hunting demons cause that stuff’s a blast but when I got down to it I started having some problems with it but oh no don’t worry, not on a technical level.
Like, a demon isn’t actually that much stronger than a human—they’re more like, a lateral problem. I mean, in any of your TV shows and anime, how many demons have killed humans equal to the number of humans killed by another human? In a universe where demons are these sneaky creatures praying on humans from the shadows of the universe they’re about as dangerous as shark attacks or being killed by a falling pineapple, and they’re not even that hard to kill if you have the right equipment, it’s just that human civilization has spent all of its time trying to figure out better ways to kill people and maybe some animals than vampires or some other such nonsense. Killing monsters means being overworked and underpaid, it’s a working class job. And besides that, being good at killing monsters doesn’t mean good at killing humans, so you’re not even stronger than the average person and they’re richer and cooler and pretty much everyone is better off than the weirdos who drop out of high school to fight monsters.
I was thinking that’d be a kind of cool world to hang out in for a little.